Amid overwhelming opposition to consolidation, a committee appointed by the Florida Supreme Court on Friday unanimously recommended against shrinking the number of judicial circuits in the state.
Chief Justice Carlos Muniz in July issued an order establishing the committee to explore whether any of the state’s 20 judicial circuits should be consolidated, an idea pushed by House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast.
Muniz gave the committee until Dec. 1 to issue a report. State attorneys, public defenders, judges, sheriffs, other elected officials, attorneys and members of the public from the Florida Keys to the Panhandle vehemently argued against a potential decrease in the number of circuits.
After Friday’s unanimous vote, 4th District Court of Appeal Judge Jonathan Gerber, who chairs the committee, said the months-long effort wasn’t in vain.
“This exercise that we’ve done is a good exercise and healthy exercise for not only the (judicial) branch but our system of government as a whole,” Gerber said.
Gerber noted that the number of circuits in the state hasn’t changed over the past 54 years and that other court-related studies have been useful.
“Every time we have a study like this, we learn more about the judicial branch and the justice system stakeholders that helps us to improve the work that we do for the public and provide justice and fairness in all of the work that we do, and I expect this report will be helpful in that regard,” he said.
The committee on Friday went over surveys of each of the 20 circuits, analyzing such factors as efficiency, public trust and confidence, professionalism and case-clearance rates.
The panel, made up of judges, clerks and attorneys, also considered a number of proposed scenarios that would consolidate circuits. Each proposal, however, was shot down.
Discussing a potential consolidation in Northwest Florida, 1st Judicial Circuit Judge Linda Nobles said her circuit already covers more than 4,000 square miles.
“It would take an already difficult situation and it would make it more difficult. And that’s what happens when the geographical area gets bigger,” said Nobles, whose circuit includes Escambia, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties.
Critics of consolidation have also said such a move would diminish access to the courts for lower-income people and rural residents, pose logistical problems and be costly.
“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 at a meeting in August.
Other critics labeled consolidation a gerrymandering effort aimed at weakening Democrats’ power in the court system.
The surveys reviewed Friday revealed “legitimate beefs,” committee member Laird Lile said, “but none of them would be cured by consolidation.”
“Looking at things that have been around as long as the circuit system has is not a bad idea … but I didn’t hear anybody say that the solution to anything that we’ve identified in this fascinating process is consolidation of any circuits,” Lile, a Naples attorney, said.
Judge Margaret Steinbeck, who serves in the 20th Judicial Circuit, noted that the committee received data showing “disparate resources allocation” among the circuits, which could “potentially improve” with consolidation.
“But for me, the overarching adverse impact for any consolidation proposal was the adverse impact on public trust and confidence in the court system,” said Steinbeck, whose Southwest Florida circuit spans Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties.
Steinbeck suggested the committee include a section in its report “that doesn’t say no benefit of consolidation, but that the benefits were significantly outweighed by the adverse impacts” and consider other recommendations “in order to improve the court system.”
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.
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.
Miami-Dade County Public Defender Carlos Martinez drew attention Friday to what he said is one of the main issues confronting the judicial system.
“One of the biggest inefficiencies in our system right now, particularly in the criminal courts, is the fact that we have such high turnover in the state attorney and public defender offices, and that is almost strictly due to the low salaries for people coming in and not being able to retain our lawyers,” Martinez said.
Under a 2021 rule, the Supreme Court must consider circuits’ effectiveness, efficiency, accessibility, professionalism and public trust and confidence before recommending changes.
Seventh Judicial Circuit Judge Christopher Kelly, pointing to the rule, said the committee could make suggestions other than consolidation to help courts run better.
“It’s important for us to look at that criteria and say, can we provide a better service to the people that come to the courts,” said Kelly, whose circuit is made up of St. Johns Flagler, Putnam and Volusia counties.
Judge Keith Carsten of the 9th Judicial Circuit in Orange and Osceola counties, however, said Muniz’s directive was limited.
“Our charge was not to come up with ideas of change across the board … The charge to the committee was ‘the committee must limit its findings and recommendations to whether there is a need to consolidate, i.e., reduce the number of Florida’s judicial circuits,’” Carsten said.
But Gerber said the committee, which will meet Nov. 17 to finalize a draft report, could highlight issues facing the judicial system as part of its submission to the Supreme Court.
“Whether or not the Supreme Court or the Legislature or the executive branch wishes to proceed at any point later on, that’s for their consideration to do, but we can at least within the report itself make note of other suggestions that were made to us though outside the course and scope of our committee’s charge,” he said.