The Florida House on Thursday unanimously approved a plan to add two new county judges, one of them in Flagler, where County Judge Melissa Distler’s workload has long been among the heaviest in the state. The second county judgeship would be in Citrus.
The Legislature last year approved enough money for both counties to add “senior judges” to their bench to alleviate the workload, but that was a one-year appropriation. Last December, the state Supreme Court certified the need for four new circuit judgeships (in the First and Fourteenth judicial circuits and two in the Ninth Judicial Circuit), and decertified three county court judgeships (one in Pasco County and two in Brevard).
This year’s House bill, HB5011, sponsored by Palm Coast’s Paul Renner, would make the addition of county judges in Flagler and Citrus permanent. The total, annual recurring cost would be $613,274 for both seats. A county judge is currently paid $151,822, not including benefits. Support staff accounts for other costs.
The Senate is considering a bill that would add two circuit judgeships.
The House voted 112-0 to approve the 17-line Renner bill. The Flagler County Commission had made securing a new judgeships one of its legislative priorities this year, as it had in previous years. But the plan has yet to cross a hurdle in the Senate and get the governor’s signature. If the plan is approved, it would go in effect on July 1, 2019, and the seat would presumably be on the ballot in the 2020 election.
Meanwhile, the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee is scheduled Tuesday to take up a proposal (SB 7072), sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, that would add one circuit judge in the 9th Judicial Circuit and one circuit judge in the 12th Judicial Circuit.
The 9th Circuit is made up of Orange and Osceola counties, while the 12th Circuit is made up of DeSoto, Manatee and Sarasota counties.
The Florida Supreme Court each year recommends adding or eliminating judgeships across the state. But the legislative proposals differ significantly from the court’s recommendation. The court bases its recommendation on data provided by the chief judge of each circuit (in the case of Flagler’s 7th Judicial Circuit, which also includes St. Johns, Volusia and Putnam, it’s Chief Judge Raul Zambrano, who formerly sat in Flagler.)
“The objective data are supplemented by judgeship requests submitted by the lower courts, including various secondary factors. These secondary factors,” the court wrote in December, “identified by each chief judge reflect local differences in support of their requests for more judgeships or in support of their requests to not decertify judgeships in situations where the objective case weights alone would indicate excess judicial capacity.”
The opinion added: “Given the recent interest by the Florida Legislature in adjusting county court jurisdiction, it is possible county court jurisdiction thresholds for civil cases, the procedures and path for appeals in certain cases, and small claims jurisdiction amounts may be adjusted. Precise estimates of how these changes would affect objective measures are challenging when considered individually and more so when multiple adjustments are contemplated. Any of the changes can reasonably be expected to shift workload in county, circuit, and appellate courts.”