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Supreme Court makes judgeship recommendations ahead of upcoming legislative session

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Three justices took issue with the court’s conclusion that one fewer judge was needed in each of Alachua and Brevard counties

Seal of the Florida Supreme CourtThe Florida Supreme Court on November 30 certified the need for additional judges: one in the 20th Judicial Circuit, two in Hillsborough County, and three in Orange County. The court also recommended a decrease of one judge in Alachua and Brevard counties, which three justices opposed, and legislation for fewer statutorily authorized judgeships in the First and Second District Courts of Appeal.

The court’s recommendation to eventually reduce the number of judges in the First and Second DCAs is consistent with its certification last year, states Florida Supreme Court Opinion SC2023-1586, and is based on a “workload analysis.” The workload balance in those districts was thrown off when the Legislature created a Sixth DCA, which the court had recommended in 2021, changing the jurisdictional boundaries in all three.

The Legislature should consider addressing the current “excess judicial capacity” in the First and Second districts during the upcoming 2024 lawmaking session, per the opinion, which begins on January 9.

“Such legislation could specify that, upon each occurrence of an event that otherwise would have resulted in a vacancy in the office of judge of the First District or Second District, the number of authorized judges shall be reduced by one, until a specified number of judges remain on each court,” states the opinion.

The majority added: “We recommend that eventually, after attrition, there be 12 judges authorized for each of those courts.” There are currently 15 judges in the First DCA, based in Tallahassee, and 16 judges in the Second, based in Lakeland.

The Florida Constitution requires the court to set a procedure to assess the judicial need throughout the state. It will be up to the Legislature to decide whether to take up the court’s recommendations.

The court made its recommendations, in part, using a “case-weighted methodology” as well as “other significant factors, including the anticipated cases resulting from recent hurricanes that have affected the state and judicial time related to the implementation of civil case management requirements.”

The court majority said they recommended one less judge in Alachua and Brevard counties due to a “demonstrated, multi-year trend of excess judicial capacity in those two counties.”

Three justices disagreed with the assessment. Justice Meredith Sasso wrote a partial dissent, taking issue with the certification of a reduced need in Alachua and Brevard, and with the decision not to recommend an additional judge in the Sixth District. Justice Jamie Grosshans concurred with Sasso’s entire opinion and Justice Jorge Labarga agreed with her position on Alachua and Brevard.

Sasso said regarding Alachua and Brevard counties, the court wasn’t being “cautious enough.” The “metrics underlying the weighted caseload methodology have not been evaluated since 2016,” she noted, while the “court system has undergone considerable changes since 2016, including subject matter jurisdiction changes, a reconfiguration of the district courts, and lasting operational modifications resulting from the global pandemic.”

Sasso said the court should grant the Sixth District an additional judge, bringing their number to 10, because the district asked for the increase and the court originally determined that was the number of judges needed in that area.

“And while the Sixth District only has about a year of experience on which it can draw, the judges of that district have provided a thoughtful analysis outlining the inherent limitations of the current methodology’s ability to produce an accurate picture of the Sixth District’s needs. To fill the gap, the Sixth District draws on existing data to provide a more representative view of the district’s current and future needs,” wrote Sasso. “In doing so, the Sixth District makes a strong case for why this Court’s initial assessment was correct.”

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