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Justices support having DCAs handle county court appeals

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Supreme Court Justice Charles T. CanadyThe Supreme Court is endorsing legislation to end having circuit courts hear appeals from county court decisions and instead have those go directly to district courts of appeal.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady on November 8 issued a letter endorsing the recommendations from the Judicial Management Council’s Workgroup on Appellate Review of County Court Decisions, which has been looking at appeals of county court decisions since January.

According to the Office of the State Courts Administrator, no bills have been introduced but the Supreme Court’s position has been given to legislative leaders.

The workgroup’s main recommendation was to seek “statutory amendments to transfer the circuit courts’ appellate and related extraordinary writ authority to the DCAs in county civil cases, including non-criminal violations, county criminal cases, and administrative cases.” If such statutory changes are made, then revisions to the Appellate Court Procedural Rules would also be required, the workgroup said.

Canady’s letter said the court “supports the Legislature’s consideration of proposed legislation during the 2020 Regular Session to transfer the referenced circuit court appellate and related extraordinary writ authority to the DCAs.”

The task force envisioned legislation in the 2021 session with a January 1, 2022, effective date, while Canady’s letter endorsed action in the 2020 session, which begins January 14, with a January 1, 2021, effective date.

The court endorsed the workgroup’s recommendation to have the Commission on District Court of Appeal Performance and Accountability and the Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability evaluate the change’s effects on circuit courts and the DCAs.

The workgroup also suggested giving circuit courts 24 months to finish any appeals after the effective date of any new law. The Supreme Court liked that idea, but set the limit at 12 months.

“[T]he consensus, we developed is circuit judges like the intellectual challenge of doing appellate work, but realizing they are primarily trial judges and that is the work they do,” said Second DCA Judge Robert Morris, who chaired the workgroup.

Problems, he said, include the lack of uniformity around the state in using single judges or three-judge panels to hear county court appeals; reporting and searchability of the decisions; and a way for resolving conflicting decisions, both within and between circuits.

“If you have inconsistent opinions at the district court level, the way you resolve that is by the en banc process, and you don’t have that at the circuit level,” Morris said. “There is another problem that circuit opinions may not be published. Some are published…and are searchable. A lot of them are never published and many of those that are, are not in a searchable format.”

The workgroup, in its executive summary, said that ending having circuit courts hear appeals from county court decisions “is exclusively within the authority of the Legislature and Governor and that it will require considerable operational changes to the court system; however, the Workgroup believes that the following anticipated benefits outweigh the implementation challenges: a) intra‐ and inter‐circuit conflict will no longer exist; b) over time, the number of appeals in county court and administrative cases will likely decrease as issues are resolved by the DCAs; and c) many aspects do not have to be modified, i.e., DCAs currently publish their decisions, use three‐judge panels, and have appropriate expertise and staffing.”

The workgroup said court statistics were not clear on how many cases would be affected. One set of data showed for the past 10 years there has been an annual average of 1,867 appeals to circuit courts from county court actions, but that figure did not include administrative appeals or petitions for writs in civil appellate cases.

Another source of information cited in the workgroup’s report put the number of appeals at 1,967 in 2016-17; 455 criminal appeals and 1,412 civil appeals.

The workgroup was created after the Appellate Court Rules Committee filed amendments to require that appeals in circuit courts always be handled by panels of three judges. Currently, some counties use a single judge some or all the time.

The court declined to adopt that amendment but agreed the issue needed more study and created the workgroup.

Among the workgroup’s findings:

• Florida is one of only five states that has trial court judges handling appellate as well as trial court duties. Two other states have appellate divisions in their trial courts, but judges sit there permanently or semi-permanently and focus solely on appeals.

• Twenty-four counties always use three-judge panels to hear county court appeals, 31 counties do not use three-judge panels, one uses three-judge panels if requested, and in 11 counties some appeals are heard by a single judge and some by three-judge panels.

• Only nine circuits publish all or some appellate decisions on circuit websites and some opinions are published by Florida Law Weekly.

• While a circuit appellate ruling is binding of all county court judges in that circuit, it is not binding on another circuit panel or judge hearing an appeal on the same issue in that or any other circuit. Consequently, there are intra- and inter-circuit conflicting decisions.

• Resolving those conflicts can be difficult; they may not meet the standard for certiorari review by a DCA, and many times litigants do not appeal a conflicting ruling.

The workgroup looked at requiring three-judge panels for all appeals, requiring all appellate decisions to be published on court websites, having en banc or five-judge panels seated to resolve conflicts, or authorizing DCAs to resolve those conflicts.

Publishing all decisions on court websites would be expensive and chief judges in both large and small circuits said requiring three-judge panels or having en banc or five-judge panels to resolve conflicts would be expensive and logistically difficult.

The workgroup concluded that while it might be constitutionally questionable to have DCAs resolve the conflict issue, it was permissible to simply move circuit court appellate authority to the DCA, which requires a statutory change.

That would have the advantage of eliminating intra- and inter-circuit conflicts and all decisions would be published.

And, “Over time the number of appeals in county court and administrative cases is likely to decrease significantly as issues are resolved by the DCAs. An anecdotal report by one of the judges on the Workgroup indicated that over 100 pending appeals of county court PIP decisions arguing the same issue became moot on the day that the DCA issued an opinion resolving the issue,” the report said.

The workgroup found that the change would increase DCA workload by an average of 31 cases per judge per year and that most of the appellate courts could handle that with their existing judges. However, the Fourth DCA, where the increase was projected at 60 cases per judge, would require three new judges.

Tom Hall, chair of the Bar’s Appellate Court Rules Committee, said he expects that panel, aside from looking at needed rule changes if a law is passed, to look at appeals of nonfinal county court orders, which was not addressed by the report or Canady’s letter.

“The reason that’s unique is that the Florida Supreme Court has the right to say which nonfinal orders are appealable. We are looking at that and might need to clarify that,” he said.

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