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Supreme Court calls for the creation of a sixth DCA

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Proposed DCA map

The Florida Supreme Court is recommending the realignment of the state’s district courts of appeal and the creation of a sixth DCA. If the Legislature agrees, it would be the first time since 1979 that Florida has created a new district court of appeal.

Saying it would “significantly improve the judicial process,” the Supreme Court has recommended creating a sixth district court of appeal and adjusting the boundaries of the First, Second, and Fifth appellate districts.

If the Legislature agrees, it would be the first time since 1979 that Florida has created a new district court of appeal.

Chief Justice Charles Canady was joined in a November 24 opinion by Justices Jorge Labarga, Alan Lawson, Carlos Muñiz, and John Couriel, with Justice Jamie Grosshans concurring in result only. Justice Ricky Polston cast the lone dissent.

The opinion adopts recommendations made by the District Court of Appeal Workload and Jurisdiction Assessment Committee that the Supreme Court appointed in May.

“We agree with the Committee’s conclusion that public trust and confidence will be enhanced by the creation of a sixth district court,” the justices wrote.

The majority opinion notes that rule factors related to public trust are “largely subjective.”

“Nonetheless, we believe that the factors are meaningful considerations, and that the Committee has identified a reasonable basis for its approval.”

In his dissent, however, Justice Polston stated that the majority opinion adopts a committee recommendation “that it not supported by any of the five chief judges of the DCAs or by any district court of appeal judge,” on the committee.

“I agree with the district court of appeal judges that no changes are justified,” Justice Polston wrote.

The majority opinion also certifies the need for six new appellate judgeships.

But Justice Polston noted in his dissent that “under our annual certification process for the need for additional judges, no district court requested certification of additional judgeships, and none are justified by the average projected judicial need analysis performed.”

Chaired by Third District Court of Appeal Judge Ed Scales, the 15-member committee included DCA, circuit, and county judges, and two Florida Bar Board of Governors members. It was geographically balanced, with three representatives from each of the five appellate regions.

The committee was assigned to “evaluate the necessity for increasing, decreasing, or redefining the appellate districts” based on five criteria described in Rules of General Practice and Judicial Administration 2.241. Those are defined as – “effectiveness, efficiency, access to appellate review, professionalism, and public trust.”

A committee majority recommended the creation of at least one additional district court, with a plurality supporting the creation of a sixth district and adjusting district lines. The opinion adopts the plurality recommendation.

Quoting from the committee’s final report, the majority opinion states: “Specifically, an additional [district court] would help provide adequate access to oral arguments and other proceedings, foster public trust and confidence based on geography and demographic composition, and attract a diverse group of well-qualified applicants for judicial vacancies including applicants from all circuits within each district.”

A “salient issue,” the majority opinion states, “is the serious underrepresentation among district court judges of judges from within the Fourth Judicial Circuit, which contains Jacksonville, one of Florida’s largest metropolitan areas.”

The majority noted that the Fourth Circuit generates 29% of the filings of the First District Court, but only two judges, or 13% of the judges on the First DCA, are from the Fourth Judicial Circuit.

“Even more striking, the population of the Fourth Circuit – with its 2 out of 15 DCA judges – makes up 37.5% of the population of the current First District,” the majority opinion states.

But Justice Polston took issue with that finding, saying that the case filings and the court’s metrics for certifying the need for appellate judges doesn’t indicate that Jacksonville is underrepresented.

Jacksonville’s population is irrelevant, Justice Polston wrote.

“As the majority notes, Jacksonville is a large metropolitan area,” Justice Polston said. “But the Florida Constitution does not provide for redistricting the court system based on population size as it does for legislative representation…”

Counties in each DCAThe committee’s plurality proposal would move the Fourth Judicial Circuit from the First District into the Fifth District, composed of the Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, and 18th judicial circuits; the Ninth Judicial Circuit from the Fifth District into the Second DCA, composed of the Ninth, 10th, and 20th circuits, and the Sixth, 12th, and 13th circuits from the Second District to be compose of a newly created Sixth DCA.

The Third and Fourth DCAs would be unaffected.

The majority acknowledged that creating a new district court and changing jurisdictional boundaries would raise “a variety of operational issues with policy and fiscal implications.”

It cites several examples, including that the Florida Constitution requires the appointment of a clerk and marshal for each district court, and that additional administrative, security, and IT support staff would be needed. Justices also cited the potential need for an interim facility for the Second DCA while a new one is being built.

However, the majority pledged that the Supreme Court would assist the Legislature in determining the appropriate level of court system resources, “the details of which will be dependent upon the policy direction the Legislature establishes.”

“The creation of a new district court, like any other significant change in the judicial system, would be accompanied by some degree of internal disruption, but we conclude that any such internal disruption in the district courts associated with the creation of a sixth district court would be short-lived and would be outweighed by the benefit of enhanced public trust and confidence,” the majority opinion states.

But Justice Polston said the majority failed to properly consider Rule 2.241(b)(8), which, in part, requires the Supreme Court to “balance the potential impact and disruption caused by changes in judicial circuits and appellate districts against the need to address circumstances that limit the quality and efficiency of, and public confidence in, the judicial process.”

“This certification is analogous to rebuilding a ship for what should be swapping out a couple of deck chairs,” Polston wrote.

The majority opinion also endorses a committee recommendation that any realignment of districts “not result in decertification of judges or a requirement for judges to change their residence in order to remain in office.”

The majority opinion recommends assigning one of the six additional judgeships to the realigned Second District and five in the realigned Fifth District.

“This assessment is based on the assumption that each existing judge who resides within a county that was proposed for assignment to a new district court would be considered a judge of the new district court,” the majority wrote.

Under the proposal, the six district courts would include:

First District: 13 judges (all presently sitting)

Second District: 10 judges (nine presently sitting and one to be added)

Third District: 10 judges (all presently sitting)

Fourth District: 12 judges (all presently sitting)

Fifth District: 12 judges (seven presently sitting and five to be added)

Sixth District: 13 judges (all presently sitting)

The court further recommended that any legislation implementing the changes specify that vacancies will not be “deemed to occur as a result of the changes” and that “excess capacity in a given district court be addressed over time through attrition, as guided by this Court’s annual certification of the need for additional appellate judges.”

The majority recommended that the creation of an additional district “not result in the decertification of existing judges, pending an opportunity to fully assess workload need over time through future certification processes.”

District court workloads are expected to climb as courts transition to more normal operations from the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority opinion notes. The pandemic, justices wrote, has also made it difficult to assess judicial need following the transfer of circuit court authority to hear county court appeals, a change that became effective in January.

In Re: Redefinition of Appellate Districts and Certification of Need for Additional Appellate Judges, Case No. SC21-1543, may be found here.

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