Judicial circuit consolidation recommended against

by | Nov 6, 2023

  • The Florida Supreme Court’s exploratory circuit consolidation committee recommended against consolidating the state’s judicial circuits after finding the potential for increased logistical issues, decreased public trust, and higher costs despite initial arguments for improved efficiency and taxpayer savings.
  • Opposition from the Florida Bar, state attorneys, public defenders, and judges was based on evidence that current circuits are efficient, and changes could disrupt judicial operations and negatively impact fiscal aspects.
  • Public hearings and surveys conducted by the committee echoed concerns over the loss of local judicial identities, operational efficiency, and public trust, with political motivations for consolidation also being criticized as harmful to the state’s legal system.

The committee formulated by the Florida Supreme Court to evaluate the possibility of consolidating the state’s judicial circuits has unanimously recommended against such measures.

The direction comes after months of sustained opposition from state attorneys, public defenders, and judges. Despite the idea being initially suggested under the guise of potentially saving taxpayer dollars and improving efficiencies, the committee reported on Friday that consolidation would likely lead to heightened logistical issues, including a potential decrease in public trust and confidence in the court system and increased costs.

“I don’t see [consolidation] increasing efficiency, particularly from an administration point of view,” said Glenn Kelley, Chief Judge of the 15th Circuit. “And particularly in light of the fact that … circuits are working at this point. There’s been nothing in the individual criteria that would suggest consolidation was necessary.”

The committee’s review included public hearings, thousands of survey responses, and assessments of the effectiveness and efficiency of the current 20 circuits. The review emphasized that while the number of circuits has remained unchanged since 1969, and there are population disparities among them, the potential disruption and adverse impacts of consolidation outweigh any benefits.

In October, the Florida Bar advocated opposition to the consolidation considerations, corroborating that the process could prove disruptive to judicial operations.

In a comment signed off on by Florida Bar President F. Scott Westheimer and Executive Director Josh Doyle, the organization cited 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 suggested that the current structure allows judges to serve on committees and effectively manage caseloads while concurrently determining that consolidation would have an overall estimated negative fiscal impact related to the work of state attorneys and public defenders.

“[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 Bar’s comment reads.

The Bar’s sentiment was matched by the majority of speakers through prior public hearings hosted by the consolidation committee. During the initial meeting on Aug. 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.”


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