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Court consolidation efforts continue to draw opposition

Exterior of Florida Supreme Court building
Lauren Witte
/
Fresh Take Florida
The future composition of the Florida Supreme Court is at stake in a battle between the state's governor and a state representative.

Judges, prosecutors and public defenders from the Florida Keys to the Panhandle are vehemently opposing an effort to consolidate state judicial circuits, arguing that such a move would further erode public confidence in the court system.

Judges, prosecutors and public defenders from the Florida Keys to the Panhandle are vehemently opposing an effort to shrink the number of state judicial circuits, arguing that such a move would further erode public trust in the court system.

The pushback comes as a committee carries out an order from Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Muniz to make recommendations about the possibility of consolidating the 20 judicial circuits. House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, is pushing the consolidation idea.

During a meeting Friday in Orlando, about 50 people — including state attorneys and public defenders — urged the Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee to scrap the possibility.

Larry Basford, state attorney in the 14th Judicial Circuit, told the committee Florida has the nation’s lowest ratio of circuits per resident. Basford’s Northwest Florida circuit encompasses Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson and Washington counties.

“We’re not talking just about numbers. We’re talking about making the justice system work. … Taking away citizens’ ability to elect their local judicial officials in these rural areas — and that’s the way this (effort) has been perceived — will erode the public trust and confidence in our judicial system,” said Basford, who was among 10 state attorneys who participated in Friday’s meeting. “Bigger does not mean better.”

The Florida Constitution gives the Legislature the authority to make changes in the circuit- and appellate-court systems, based on recommendations from the Supreme Court. In 2022, for example, lawmakers approved creating a sixth district court of appeal and reorganizing some appellate jurisdictions.

Under a 2021 rule, the Supreme Court must consider circuits’ effectiveness, efficiency, accessibility, professionalism and public trust and confidence before recommending changes.

All of the speakers at Friday’s meeting, as well as people who submitted written comments to the committee, argued against reducing the number of circuits. Many suggested adding circuits.

"Taking away citizens’ ability to elect their local judicial officials in these rural areas — and that’s the way this (effort) has been perceived — will erode the public trust and confidence in our judicial system."
Larry Basford

Some contended that consolidation is a gerrymandering effort aimed at weakening Democrats. Changing the circuits would have a “ripple” effect throughout the judicial system, state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, told the panel.

“I feel that this proposal has been put forward to change the demographics of certain of the judicial districts, both in terms of ethnic makeup in terms of voter registration to concentrate power in the administration. So I think that that is what is driving this,” she said.

Florida’s circuits include elected state attorneys, public defenders and judges. The circuits were last changed in 1969, and the state’s population has more than quadrupled since then.

Consolidation poses logistical problems, would be costly and would diminish access to courts for lower-income people and rural residents, critics said.

“With the incredible increase in our state’s population, the increasing complexity of our cases and the expanding functions of our trial courts … consolidating our judicial circuits just does not make sense to me,” 10th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brian Haas, whose circuit includes Polk, Highland and Hardee counties, told the panel.

In a June 15 letter to Muniz that spurred creation of the committee, Renner noted that “the size of our judicial circuits varies widely,” ranging from about 2.7 million people in the 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami-Dade County to less than 100,000 people in the 16th Judicial Circuit in Monroe County.

“I believe that the consolidation of circuits might lead to greater efficiencies and uniformity in the judicial process, thereby increasing public trust and confidence,” Renner wrote, adding that consolidation would also lead “to substantial cost savings for Florida’s taxpayers.”

But Robert Lockwood, public defender in the 16th Circuit, argued Friday that, although Monroe County’s population is around 80,000, the region has about 5 million visitors a year. He noted that it would take nearly four hours to drive from Key West to the Miami-Dade County courthouse, with just a single highway leading from the Keys to the mainland.

The circuit “was born for a reason and that reason still exists today,” said Lockwood, who was elected in 2016.

David Hutchinson, a Key Largo lawyer, also opposed “any type” of consolidation.

“We don’t want any changes. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. We’re happy with what we’ve got. Public trust and confidence is everything. No matter what efficiency or economy you’re looking for, none of it matters without the trust of the public,” Hutchinson said. “We will fight it vigorously if it is foisted upon us.”

“To the contrary, redefinition may adversely impact sound management principles and critical relationships with other justice partners. Additional fiscal burdens are likely both at state and local levels.”
14th Circuit Chief Judge Christopher Patterson

Broward County State Attorney Harold Pryor said he was “in lockstep” with other prosecutors, who he said engage with officials in their circuits. Broward County makes up the 17th Judicial Circuit.

“They rely on us to develop those relationships, to have our ears to the ground, to speak to the citizenry, to share that information with our law-enforcement officials,” said Pryor, whose circuit includes 31 municipalities. “It’s extremely important that we maintain those relationships … because this ensures the public trust.”

Pryor said his circuit is “very diverse.”

“You can do it with all those municipalities. Why do you not envision that being doable by consolidation with others?” committee member Diane Moreland, chief judge-elect of the 12th Judicial Circuit, asked Pryor.

Each geographic region is different, the prosecutor said.

“And so, yes, we've been able to do it but also there is an institutional, a cultural memory, a generational memory there that we have to work with, right? And so if we were to expand … then that would slow the wheels of justice, that would make us inefficient, right, because we're trying to learn different communities that we may not have grown up in. … And so it slows the process and I think our communities will be disadvantaged, not just criminally, but in the civil aspect as well,” Pryor said.

Some judicial leaders also oppose consolidation.

Such a move “will not create appreciable enhancements to efficiency or effectiveness,” 14th Circuit Chief Judge Christopher Patterson wrote to the committee on behalf of the state’s chief judges.

“To the contrary, redefinition may adversely impact sound management principles and critical relationships with other justice partners. Additional fiscal burdens are likely both at state and local levels,” Patterson wrote in a six-page memo on Monday.

The 14-member committee, made up of judges, clerks and attorneys, is chaired by 4th District Court of Appeal Judge Jonathan Gerber. Muniz asked the committee to submit recommendations by Dec. 1, a little more than a month before the 2024 legislative session starts. The committee will meet again Oct. 13.

Matthew Metz, public defender in the 7th Judicial Circuit, argued Friday that the process is too rushed. As an example, Metz said, circuits use different technologies and software that might not be compatible.

“I want you to consider the process of just changing your email,” said Metz, whose district includes Volusia, Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties. “We need more time, to be able to speak with the public at large and let them know if this is going to take place.”

Dara Kam is the Senior Reporter of The News Service Of Florida.
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