- The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors has established a workgroup to address the ongoing study on the consolidation of the state’s judicial circuits.
- Bar president Scott Westheimer initiated the workgroup’s formation in response to calls from various stakeholders for the organization to engage in the consolidation discussion and determine whether it should provide an official comment.
- Legal organizations, state lawmakers, and individual attorneys have been outspoken in opposition to potential consolidation efforts.
The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors is forming a workgroup to determine if, and how, the organization should respond to an ongoing study that is deliberating the consolidation of the state’s 20 judicial circuits.
The workgroup’s primary duty, according to the Board of Governors, is to determine whether The Florida Bar should make an official comment on the ongoing consolidation study and, if it should, to determine the content and nature of that comment.
“This board has been asked to make a comment from various constituents,” Florida Bar president Scott Westheimer said. “I’m going to set up a workgroup to give us a recommendation on whether we should give a comment, [and] what the comment should say.”
A growing chorus of legal experts, lawmakers, and police chiefs in Florida raised concerns during the Judicial Consolidation Committee’s most recent meeting on August 25 regarding the proposed consolidation of the state’s judicial circuits.
Sustaining the ethos of the committee’s initial meeting on August 4, discussions largely focused on operational disruptions and the preservation of local identities in smaller circuit jurisdictions.
“I would suggest if you create mega-circuits … you’re going to lose the people that have worked in those circuits as those judges, those attorneys, and those public defenders,” said 3rd Judicial Circuit Public Defender Cliff Wilson, who spoke during the public hearing portion of the meeting. “Relationships we build in those circuits equate to efficiency, effectiveness, and public trust in the judicial system.”
Rep. Yvonne Hinson, who appeared at the meeting, referred to the consolidation proposition as “dangerous territory,” pointing to the state’s legal system as one of “trust.”
Consolidating for political reasons, she said, erodes the established trust and sows division among constituents. Hinson also pointed to future budget constrictions, which would need to be overhauled on a circuit-by-circuit basis to accommodate new geographic areas that necessitate unique resources.
Panama City Beach Police Chief Eusebio Talamantez provided written opposition to the committee and questioned the logistical basis of the move, stating that following through with the proposal would impede proceedings within his circuit.
“The potential ramifications for our local legal representatives, particularly the State Attorney, are profound and warrant serious consideration,” he said. “The potential challenges and disruptions introduced by the proposed consolidation far outweigh any perceived benefits.”
The committee responsible for studying the proposal, chaired by Judge Jonathan D. Gerber of the Fourth District Court of Appeal, was formed following a letter penned by House Speaker Paul Renner that suggested consolidating the circuits could result in enhanced public trust and improve the efficiency of the judicial process.
Chief Justice Carlos G. Munoz supported the need for consideration and study of whether to consolidate Florida’s judicial circuits and emphasized that the committee should focus on determining the necessity of consolidation.
“Without expressing any view on the merits at this time, the Court agrees that the question of whether there is a need to consolidate Florida’s judicial circuits deserves thoughtful consideration and careful study,” wrote Chief Justice Carlos G. Munoz in an administrative order. “To that end, and to aid the Court in making its ultimate determination, the Court believes it would be beneficial to appoint an assessment committee.”
In his letter, Renner highlighted the wide variation in the size of Florida’s judicial courts, with the Eleventh Circuit serving a population of 2.7 million and the Sixteenth Circuit serving fewer than 100,000 people. He also pointed out that the boundaries of the judicial circuits have remained unchanged since 1969, despite significant population and demographic changes over the years.
To assess interest in the consolidation, further outreach is underway through a survey that utilizes a five-point scale across six criteria areas, including expenditures, judicial frameworks, and potential issues. This survey aims to gauge the feelings and opinions of stakeholders about facilitating the consolidation.