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Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee takes public comments

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Florida's 20 Judicial Circuits

Florida’s 20 Judicial Circuits

Prosecutors, public defenders, trial lawyers, and other critics of a proposal to consolidate Florida’s 20 judicial circuits delivered a united message August 25 to a Supreme Court panel.

“We don’t want any changes,” said Key Largo attorney David Hutchinson. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Opponents lined up in an Orlando courtroom for hours, or appeared remotely via Webex, to address their concerns to the Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee.

Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz created the panel June 30 via Administrative Order SC23-35 in response to a letter from House Speaker Paul Renner. Renner asked the Supreme Court to consider whether a consolidation is warranted. Renner noted that the current circuit boundaries have been in place since 1969, “notwithstanding the significant population and demographic changes of the past 50 years.”

Renner suggested that consolidation of circuits might generate substantial cost savings and “increase public trust and confidence” in the judiciary through greater efficiency and uniformity in the judicial process.

“Without expressing any view on the merits at this time, the Court agrees that the question of whether there is a need to consolidate Florida’s judicial circuits deserves thoughtful consideration and careful study,” Muñiz wrote in the order.

The process is governed by Florida Rule of General Practice and Judicial Administration 2.241 (Determination of the Necessity to Increase, Decrease, or Redefine Judicial Circuits and Appellate Courts).

A similar assessment committee recommended creating a new Sixth District Court of Appeal last year. The rule requires recommendations to be based on six factors, including whether a change would increase “public trust and confidence” in the courts. The others are effectiveness, efficiency, access to courts, professionalism, and additional criteria considered when determining the need for additional judges.

Most critics were careful to mirror the rule language.

“Reducing the number of circuit courts is counterintuitive to all sense of judicial efficiency, which will lead to a lack of trust,” said Orlando attorney and Florida Justice Association board member Anthony Sos.

Sos noted that FJA supported adding a new Sixth District Court of Appeal.

State attorneys and public defenders from rural areas told the committee that merging their circuit with an urban jurisdiction would make the courts appear even more distant to the residents they are supposed to serve.

“We are God-fearing conservative people. If the mission here is to save money, we’re all about that,” said Third Circuit State Attorney John Durrett. “But if the mission here is to enhance public trust and confidence in the judicial system, then consolidation is not the answer.”

Third Circuit Public Defender Cliff Wilson noted that the North Florida jurisdiction sprawls across 5,000 miles and seven counties. The largest city has 20,000 residents, he said. Consolidation would make it harder for his constituents to elect a state attorney or public defender they trust, Wilson said.

“Those large population centers, they outweigh our voters,” he said.

Fourteenth Circuit Public Defender Henry Mark Sims said if his rural Panhandle circuit were absorbed by another or divided between the First and Second circuits, “our citizens and voters” would be “disenfranchised.”

“In other words, there would most likely never be a state attorney, public defender, or circuit judge elected from our six counties because we simply do not have the population nor votes,” Sims said. “This is not a good outcome for our local citizens.”

The Florida Public Defender Association wrote that it was “gravely concerned” that a rushed effort could lead to massive delays and disruption.

The committee has been directed to deliver its recommendations in time for lawmakers to act in the next session. Interim committee weeks begin in September ahead of the regular 60-day session that convenes in January. The committee’s deadline to submit its recommendations is December 1.

“Confidence in the justice system stems from face-to-face interactions between officials and citizens,” the FPDA wrote. “Creating mega-circuits with distant agency heads will not inspire greater public trust in our judicial process. If our smaller multi-county circuits were consolidated into large ones, their uniqueness would be diluted, their voices drowned out by the din of the larger urban circuits. Many citizens would lose faith in their representation in our judicial process as a result.”

Christopher Patterson, chair, Justice Administrative Committee of the Conference of Circuit Judges, wrote that chief judges do not believe that consolidation will create “appreciable enhancements to efficiency or effectiveness.”

“To the contrary, redefinition may adversely impact sound management principles and critical relationships with other justice partners,” Patterson said.

The letter warned that consolidation could also create additional “fiscal burdens” at the state and local level.

“Technology differences will be magnified and directly impact the courts’ mission. Furthermore, consolidating existing court administration leadership may create unintended employee retention issues. Likewise, changes to circuit composition will not impact the Branch’s professionalism efforts. Finally, the Judicial Code of Conduct remains the benchmark by which public confidence may be secured and enhanced. For these reasons there is not a present need to reduce the number of Florida’s judicial circuits.”

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, accused the consolidation effort of having an ulterior motive — diluting the power of liberal-leaning jurisdictions.

“This entire request feels very political, it feels like additional gerrymandering,” Eskamani said. “We’re losing a lot of confidence and trust in the process right now.”

No witnesses spoke in favor of consolidation.

Broward County Court Judge Robert Lee, a committee member, asked for a survey of multi-county circuits to determine how far prosecutors and public defenders are required to travel.

“Are they stationary, or are they in one county?” Lee asked. “If we consolidate, are people going to be traveling more?”

The committee has developed two surveys — one for court system workers and another for litigants and others who come in contact with the justice system.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Judge Jonathan Gerber, the committee chair,  says it is critical to receive as many responses to the surveys as possible.

The surveys are estimated to require approximately 20 minutes to complete and are considered public records that must be disclosed upon request. However, the responses will be compiled and analyzed anonymously, as a whole or by demographic group, according to the committee.

All survey responses must be submitted by the close of business on Friday, September 1.

The Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee will meet next on September 15 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., via zoom, to consider the survey results and public hearing feedback; consider the fiscal and operational impacts of consolidation; and discuss initial findings and options.

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