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Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee to survey the membership

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color coded map of Florida showing the 20 judicial circuitsAll Florida Bar members will soon receive an emailed survey from the Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee asking for their input as it considers whether the state’s 20 judicial circuits should be consolidated.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Judge Jonathan Gerber, who chairs the committee, said at its August 4 virtual meeting that it is critical to receive as many responses to the survey as possible.

“We can’t encourage you enough to put the word out about these surveys,” Gerber said, noting that along with the survey aimed at those who work in the court system, another survey has been prepared for the litigants and others who come in contact with the justice system.

Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz created the Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee June 30 via Administrative Order SC23-35, in response to a letter from House Speaker Paul Renner asking the court to consider whether a consolidation of the state’s existing judicial circuits is warranted, noting the current boundaries of the judicial circuits have been in place since 1969, “notwithstanding the significant population and demographic changes of the past 50 years.”

Speaker 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,” according to the AO creating the assessment committee.

The order stresses that the Supreme Court, before recommending any change in judicial structure, must consider “less disruptive adjustments” to judicial branch operations.

Dustin Metz of the Office of the State Courts Administrator, said the professional opinion survey is based on the six criteria found in Rule 2.421 (effectiveness, efficiency, access to courts, professionalism, public trust and confidence, and additional criteria considered when determining the need for additional judges), with several other questions relating to Speaker Renner’s concerns regarding uniformity in practice and cost savings.

“The survey requests respondents to identify their profession. For example, there will be a drop-down menu to select whether you are a judge, public defender, private attorney, etc.,” Metz said. “This approach will streamline distribution of the survey while enabling staff to sort the responses in one data set, which makes comparing the results and generating charts much simpler.”

The survey may be completed with a desktop computer, tablet, or cell phone and is estimated to take about 20 minutes.

Pursuant to its charges, the committee must assume in making its findings and recommendations that district court of appeal (DCA) boundaries will remain unchanged. To this end, the responses to survey questions about consolidation should assume that the current DCA boundaries will stay the same. In other words, consolidation may not occur across DCA boundaries.

The survey responses are considered public records that must be disclosed upon request, but Metz said the responses will be compiled and analyzed anonymously.

The committee is putting the finishing touches on the survey that will be distributed to the state’s lawyers via The Florida Bar’s membership database and must be returned by September 1.

Judge Gerber said while the survey will be distributed using the Bar’s database; the survey itself will emphasize that the effort is a Supreme Court initiative.

In other business, Gerber appointed a six-member Fiscal and Resource Subcommittee to analyzing the monetary implications of consolidation across the entire justice system. The subcommittee will be chaired by 20th Circuit Judge Margaret Steinbeck, who also chairs the Trial Court Budget Commission.

The committee will meet in-person for the first time and hold a public hearing August 25 in Orlando in the Jury Assembly Room at the Orange County Courthouse, where it will take public testimony. It will be a hybrid meeting that will also be accessible through Webex.

The committee is under a tight deadline as the court’s order sets a December 1 deadline for the panel to submit its recommendations.

Lawmakers convene the next 60-day regular session in January, with interim committee weeks scheduled to begin in September.

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