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Sixth DCA workgroup concentrates on filling key positions

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The creation of a Sixth DCA will require some pending cases to be transferred, but organizers say that should not be cause for concern

Florida's district court of appealsPlans for creating a Sixth District Court of Appeal are on track for meeting a January 1 deadline to begin hearing cases, says the appellate judge leading the project.

“I think it has been going certainly better than expected,” said Fifth District Court of Appeal Judge Meredith Sasso. “I would say we are in as good a position as we could be right now.”

Former Chief Justice Charles Canady appointed Sasso to serve as interim chief administrative officer for the Sixth District Court of Appeal shortly after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 7027 on June 2.

Appointed to the Fifth DCA by former Gov. Rick Scott in 2019, Sasso is a Tallahassee native, 2008 UF law school graduate, and a member of the Appellate Court Rules Committee. She left private practice in 2016 to join Scott’s Office of General Counsel, where she ultimately served as Chief Deputy General Counsel. The position required her to represent the governor before the First DCA and the Supreme Court — and put her on a path to leading the first new district court of appeal in Florida since 1979.

HB 7027 establishes a Sixth DCA in Lakeland composed of the Ninth, 10th, and 20th judicial circuits.

It leaves the Third DCA and the Fourth DCAs unchanged.

It calls for a First DCA composed of the First, Second, Third, Eighth, and 14th judicial circuits, and a Second DCA composed of the Sixth, 12th, and 13th judicial circuits. The Fifth DCA will be composed of the Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, and 18th judicial circuits.

Lawmakers followed a Supreme Court recommendation to create seven new appellate judgeships — without decertifying existing judgeships, or requiring them to change residences.

Under the plan, Gov. DeSantis will appoint four of the seven new judges to the Fifth DCA to fill vacancies created by transfers — and three of the new judges to the Sixth DCA, where six sitting judges will be transferred.

So far, a Judicial Nominating Commission has not been appointed, Sasso said.

“Of course, we’ll be looking forward to seeing who our new colleagues will be,” she said.

Judge Meredith L. Sasso

Judge Meredith L. Sasso

Sasso also chairs the Supreme Court’s Workgroup on the Implementation of an Additional District Court of Appeal. She said she’s impressed by her teammates’ skill and dedication.

“Chief Justice Canady, and now Chief Justice [Carlos] Muñiz, have assembled for the workgroup some of the most conscientious and diligent people across the judiciary, from the Office of State Courts Administrator to the judges, to the court staff that are involved, and there is a plan in place for the transition,” she said.

The other members of the workgroup include:

  • Fourth DCA Marshal Daniel DiGiacomo.
  • Fifth DCA Chief Judge Brian D. Lambert.
  • Second DCA Chief Judge Robert Morris.
  • First DCA Judge John K. Stargel.
  • Fifth DCA Judge Dan Traver.

Ex-officio, non-voting members include:

  • Fourth DCA Judge Jonathan D. Gerber, who chairs the Legislative Committee of the Florida Conference of District Court of Appeal Judges.
  • Second DCA Judge Stevan Northcutt, chair of the Appellate Court Technology Committee.
  • First DCA Judge L. Clayton Roberts, chair of the District Court of Appeal Budget Commission.

Former State Courts Administrator Lisa Kiel is aiding the transition, Judge Sasso said.

Sasso said she studied an administrative order by former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Arthur J. England, Jr., who was serving when the Fifth District Court of Appeal was established in Daytona Beach at the dawn of the 1980s.

“We certainly looked at that for past wisdom, to see if there was anything from there that we could use for this transition,” she said. “Other than that, there really wasn’t a ton of records.”

So far, the workgroup has concentrated on filling key positions, Sasso said.

“We’re kind of singularly focused right now on staffing the court,” she said. “We’ve been concentrating on what we’ve called the ‘core four’ positions, and that’s marshal, clerk of court, director of central staff, and our IT person.”

Sasso said bringing veteran Fifth DCA Marshal Charles R. Crawford on board — he is now serving as acting marshal for the Sixth DCA — was a major step.

A constitutional officer, the marshal is responsible for the executive oversight and management of all nonjudicial operations, including security and facility operations, budget and finance, payroll and human resources, public information, administrative records, and computer operations, according to an OSCA statement.

“That was huge,” Sasso said. “We’ve done interviews already for clerk of court, and for director of central staff, we have great candidates, so I think we are in a really strong position considering it’s August 16.”

Under the realignment, the number of judges in the First DCA will decrease from 15 to 13, and the number of judges in the Second DCA will decrease from 16 to 15.

But the Fifth DCA will see a slight increase in judges — from 11 to 12.

Sasso said the districts with fewer judges won’t be any less efficient.

“The practitioners in those districts should be confident that it will be business as usual,” she said.

The new Sixth DCA, with nine judges, will have the fewest, but the launch will be closely monitored, Sasso said.

“We are going to give ourselves a couple of months to see how the workflow is going,” she said, adding that Chief Justice Muñiz has promised to temporarily assign judges or other staffing help if it becomes necessary.

The creation of a Sixth DCA will require some pending cases to be transferred, but that should not be cause for concern, Sasso said.

“They will continue on the same briefing schedule, they will still be decided in a timely fashion,” she said.

Before the Sixth DCA begins hearing cases, the workgroup plans to sponsor the first of multiple CLEs that will help lawyers adjust, Sasso said.

“One thing I am sure of from this project is that the practitioners across the state can expect that their courts will be running, and their cases will be heard in a timely fashion,” she said.

Sasso said she is grateful for the opportunity and is eager to launch the new court.

“It’s an exciting opportunity,” she said. “I’m very thankful that I’m getting this experience in my career, it’s historic.”

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