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Justices ask for three new trial judgeships, funding for 10 approved earlier

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State Seal of FloridaThe Supreme Court is asking for one new 14th Circuit judge and two new Hillsborough County judgeships in its annual certification opinion. The court also asked for funding for 10 trial judgeships authorized by the Legislature earlier this year but which were left vacant when the accompanying appropriation was vetoed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The court released its annual certification opinion on December 3. The Florida Constitution requires the court to set a procedure to determine the need for new judges or decertifying existing seats.

“The ten new judgeships authorized during the 2020 legislative session but for which the funding was vetoed were considered to be in existence for purposes of conducting the analysis in support of this year’s certification opinion,” the court wrote in the unanimous per curiam opinion. “In this opinion we are certifying the need for one additional circuit court judgeship in the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit, two additional county court judgeships in Hillsborough County, and no additional judgeships in the district courts of appeal. We decertify no district court, circuit court, or county court judgeships.”

The requested new unfunded judgeships approved earlier this year included a new circuit post in the 14th Circuit and four Hillsborough County court seats. Other new unfunded judgeships including two circuit seats in the Ninth Circuit and one in the First Circuit and one new county judgeship each in Orange and Lee counties.

Last year, the court decertified two county court judgeships in Brevard County and one each in Monroe and Collier counties. This year, the court said its normal two-step system for determining the need for judges would have suggested again decertifying those four seats as well as one county judgeship in Alachua County.

In deciding not to decertify those five posts, the justices cited several factors, including that the jurisdiction of county courts went from $15,000 to $30,000 last January 1 and will increase to $50,000 on January 1, 2023. The impacts of that rise are difficult to assess because of the pandemic’s impacts, which has changed the ways the courts work and are expected to lead to a surge in cases and work when it passes, the court said.

“In response to the limitations imposed by the public health crisis, trial courts have been proactive in adapting court operations, including using technology to conduct proceedings remotely and help keep the work of the courts progressing,” the opinion said. “Despite the innovative steps, a significant increase in pending workload is anticipated as the courts fully return to normal operations. The additional caseload is attributed to: proceedings, such as jury trials, in existing cases that necessarily were suspended or delayed to protect public health and safety; cases the courts anticipate but that are delayed in filing due to the onset of the pandemic; and new cases stemming from the public health emergency itself or from pandemic-related economic conditions.”

The Supreme Court has requested additional funding to address those needs, the opinion said, adding, “[A]ll available existing judicial resources will be needed to contribute to the pandemic-recovery effort. In these circumstances, we are loath to recommend the elimination of any judicial positions.”

Aside from those factors, justices said they have asked the Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability to look at the rules governing and the ways of measuring judicial certification.

“The Commission is expected to file proposed revisions to rule 2.240(c), Florida Rules of Judicial Administration, to supplement the secondary factors [in determining the need for new judges] prescribed in the rule to include, among other proposed additions, the existence and use of problem-solving courts,” the opinion said. “The Commission’s proposed revisions to the secondary factors reflect concerns that trial court judges have been expressing about a need to review and possibly refine the method for reporting on the increased numbers and types of problem-solving courts throughout the state and the increased number of cases handled by those problem solving courts.”

This year’s opinion is the first time in recent years the court has not decertified any judgeships and — not counting the 10 approved, unfunded trial court seats — the fewest new judges the court has requested in several years. The Legislature has never approved ending any of the requested decertified seats.

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