- The Florida Bar formally opposed the ongoing circuit consolidation considerations on Friday, arguing that the process could disrupt current judicial operations and is unnecessary.
- The organization presented data showing the current circuit structure is effective and efficient, with high clearance rates and positive responses from surveys regarding case handling.
- The Bar suggests focusing on ancillary measures like staff supplementation and technology implementation, rather than consolidation, to improve the judicial system’s effectiveness.
The Florida Bar on Friday advocated opposition to the ongoing circuit consolidation considerations, stating that the process could prove disruptive to current judicial operations.
In a comment signed off on by Florida Bar President F. Scott Westheimer and Executive Director Josh Doyle which was filed with the consolidation committee, the legal organization cites data indicating that the current circuit structure is effective and efficient, with high clearance rates across all circuits and positive responses from survey participants regarding the handling of cases and written decisions.
The self-formulated data also suggests that the current structure allows judges to serve on committees and effectively manage caseloads while also determining that consolidation would have an overall estimated negative fiscal impact related to the work of state attorneys and public defenders.
Rather than focusing on circuit consolidation, the Bar contends, bodies holding judicial authority should place focus on ancillary measures including staff supplementation and the implementation of technology measures like artificial intelligence.
“[P]rior to recommending a change in judicial circuits or appellate districts, the Supreme Court shall consider less disruptive adjustments including, but not limited to, the addition of judges, the creation of branch locations, geographic or subject divisions within judicial circuits or appellate districts, deployment of new technologies, and increased ratios of support staff per judge,” the comment reads.
During the 2021-2022 period, cited Bar data shows that most of Florida’s judicial circuits maintained high clearance rates, with some, such as the Circuit Civil clearance rate, surpassing 100 percent. Surveys conducted among a group of respondents, including the public, legal professionals, and government representatives, indicate that the present circuit layout is effective in expediting cases, managing their workloads efficiently, and enabling judges to make well-informed decisions.
Subsequently, the prevailing sentiment found among respondents is that consolidation is not the answer to improving the system’s effectiveness. Instead, many argue that the current circuit structure functions adequately, and the solution to managing increased caseloads lies in the addition of the aforementioned proposed auxiliary actions.
“Overall, and significantly, 93.5 percent of the responding members of the public answered “no” when asked if the effectiveness of the judicial circuit could be improved through consolidation with another judicial circuit, which is consistent with the feedback received from the membership of the Bar,” the comment continues.
The Bar’s sentiment was matched by the majority of speakers through both public hearings hosted by the consolidation committee. During the initial meeting on August 4, discussions similarly 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 during the August hearing. “Relationships we build in those circuits equate to efficiency, effectiveness, and public trust in the judicial system.”
Rep. Yvonne Hinson, who appeared at the August 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.
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. Muñiz 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,” he wrote in a past 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.”