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Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee to recommend against consolidation

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Florida's 20 Judicial Circuits

Florida’s 20 Judicial Circuits

A Supreme Court panel voted unanimously Friday not to recommend consolidating any of Florida’s 20 judicial circuits.

The Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee’s 14-0 vote capped months of meetings, public hearings, and surveys that generated more than 7,000 responses — most of them opposed to consolidation.

Immediately after the vote, Fourth District Court of Appeal Judge Jonathan Gerber, the committee’s chair, pronounced the effort “a healthy exercise” for the courts and for good government.

Judge Jonathan D. Gerber

Judge Jonathan D. Gerber

“Every time we have had a study like this, we have learned more about the judicial branch, and the judicial system stakeholders,” Gerber said.

Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz formed the committee in June, two weeks after House Speaker Paul Renner wrote to the justices and suggested that fewer circuits could save taxpayer dollars and promote “greater efficiencies and uniformity in the judicial process.”

A Palm Coast attorney, Renner noted that the circuit boundaries haven’t changed since 1969.

He pointed to wide population disparities between the largest and smallest circuits, with the 11th Circuit serving 2.7 million Miami-Dade residents, and the 16th serving fewer than 100,000 Monroe County residents in the Keys.

In a June 30 administrative order, Muñiz said that without expressing any views on the merits at this time, the court agreed consolidation deserved “thoughtful consideration and careful study.”

The order stressed that Rule 2.241, which governs the review process, requires the committee “to balance the potential impact and disruption.”

The order limited the committee to determining “whether there is a need to consolidate” and to assume that existing district court of appeal boundaries would remain unchanged.

The committee spent most of the meeting carefully matching survey responses with key performance measures for each judicial circuit, and the rule factors. They include such things as whether a change would enhance court access, efficiency, effectiveness, and “public trust and confidence.”

The Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, the Florida Public Defender Association, the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and chief judges, were among the major court stakeholders who opposed consolidation.

Fifteenth Circuit State Attorney Dave Aronberg, a former legislator and Florida Bar board liaison, warned the committee that consolidation would risk public safety.

Monroe County residents, who dominated the survey responses, turned out in droves to oppose consolidation at public hearings in Orlando and Tampa.

Before the vote, the committee focused its discussion on survey results for each circuit, grouped by DCA boundaries.

The surveys showed a need for more “uniformity/consistency,” and suggested that some circuits experience better case clearance rates than others, or have better success recruiting and retaining personnel.

But the surveys concluded that measures have already been taken to address the challenges, that clearance rates are trending upward, and that consolidation would not be a solution.

“Although 12% of professional survey respondents noted a concern (disagree or strongly disagree) that judicial circuits stay current with caseload, only 2% responded that efficiency of the judicial circuit would be improved through consolidation with another judicial circuit,” the survey showed. “Forty-four percent of respondents noted the ability to address the issue with administrative changes.”

Some committee members noted that clearance rates can change dramatically based on the length of time being measured, how a circuit was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, or whether it serves a coastal community where the courts close frequently for hurricane warnings.

Fifteenth Circuit Chief Judge Glenn Kelley noted that the Legislature only last session approved a $21.8 million appropriation for “critical due process resources” that the courts requested to pay for technology positions and salary enhancements for court reporters, court interpreters, trial court staff attorneys, and case managers.

The 15th Circuit’s case clearance rate is at or above the state average, Kelley said, and that will only improve now that the circuit has already been able to fill key case manager, court interpreter, and other positions, Kelley said.

“I think it’s going to make an even more significant difference as we move forward,” he said. “It’s going to pay off in significant ways.”

Before the final vote, the committee reviewed, and rejected, several consolidation proposals that were submitted by various court stakeholders, including a proposal to consolidate the 11th and 16th circuits.

Carlos Martinez

Carlos Martinez

Veteran Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez said that as a committee member, he had to struggle to keep his opinion to himself.

“There is just a complete lack of evidence….there is no compelling need for the 11th or the 16th to be merged,” he said. “There is not a single judge that has come to me and said it would be a good idea to improve efficiency.”

Broward County Judge Robert Lee estimated that merging Florida’s two southernmost circuits could require some judges to spend four hours driving the 175 miles that separates the North Dade Justice Center and the Key West courthouse.

First Circuit Judge Linda Nobles expressed her concern about a proposal to merge her Northwest Florida circuit with the adjacent 14th Circuit.

A chief judge would be required to coordinate services with 10 county commissions, and an equal number of elected sheriffs and court clerks, instead of the current four county commissions, four elected sheriffs, and four court clerks, Nobles said.

Chief judges maintain a full docket, and expanding to a 10-county circuit would be an administrative nightmare, she said.

“A chief judge has to meet on a regular basis with county commissioners, city commissioners, legislators…just to make sure that the voice of the circuit is considered.”

Committee members stressed that they weren’t opposed to reform.

W. Braxton Gillam IV

W. Braxton Gillam IV

“This was a system we set up 50 years ago,” said Florida Bar board member Braxton Gillam, a Jacksonville attorney. “To say we did it right in 1969 for 2023 is a very bold, a very brash statement.”

Fellow Florida Bar board member Laird Lile agreed.

“What I did hear Mr. Gillam say is looking around at the circuit system is not a bad idea,” Lile said. “Other things can be done, and hopefully that is the message that comes out of this committee.”

The committee is scheduled to meet again in two weeks to vote on a final draft of a report that is due to the Supreme Court by December 1.

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