Flagler County Court Judge D. Melissa Distler, in her 10th year on the bench, was elected President-Elect of the Florida Conference of County Court Judges last week at the judges’ summer education conference in Bonita Springs. Distler will be sworn in as president in July 2024, presiding over the conferences 335 county judges from 67 counties.
Distler is only the third judge to be elected to the position from the Seventh Judicial Circuit, which includes Flagler, St. Johns, Volusia and Putnam counties. Volusia’s Judge Hubert Grimes, who retired in 2014, served as president from 1996 to 1998, and retired Judge Robert Mathis from St. Johns County served from 1989 to 1990.
The Conference is a continuing education arm of the judiciary’s county court judges, providing what is by necessity an insular group the chance to meet among peers, discuss issues and solutions and develop programs that improve the administration of justice. Grimes during his presidency had the Conference produce a self-help video–back in the age of videos–for small-claims litigants, who tend to represent themselves and have no idea how the judicial system works, burdening judges with the the task of getting them up to speed during hearings. The organization has committees that analyze court rules, sentencing and legislative efforts, among others.
Distler, who is board certified in criminal trial law, is an Associate Dean of the College of Advanced Judicial Studies and instructs at other judicial education conferences beyond the county court level.
“I am truly humbled and honored by the Conference’s faith in my ability to lead,” Distler said in written answers to a few questions submitted after her nomination. “One of the most rewarding parts of this job has been the relationships that I have cultivated with colleagues both locally and around the state, through judicial education and conference activities. I have served the Conference as Circuit Representative, Chair of the Committee of 33, Legislative Chair, faculty for many courses, Criminal Track Leader for our Education Committee, and now as President-Elect. I look forward to the next chapter of these experiences, and I hope to continue to inspire others to cultivate relationships with colleagues, mentor new judges, and be the best they can be at this profession.
Broward County Judge Kenneth Gottlieb is currently president of the organization, having followed Judge Thomas Thompson of Marion County. Chris Miller of Volusia and Distler are the only Seventh Judicial Circuit judges on the executive committee, with Volusia’s Bryan Feigenbaum serving on the Board of Directors.
“Diversity of geographical location, county population and size, and circuit size are important factors to consider when selecting leadership,” Distler said. “I hope the citizens of Flagler County are well served by having a local President. I will be on several statewide committees during my term as President, so my unique experiences will give me a different perspective than some others who serve. At the end of the day, I will never forget that Flagler comes first; I will do my best to concurrently serve our citizens and the judiciary of the entire State of Florida.”
Distler was elected to the bench in Flagler in 2012 and was re-elected without a challenger in 2018, serving as the county’s lone county judge for most of those years–until the Legislature finally funded a second judgeship in 2019. County Judge Andrea Totten was sworn-in that November. Distler presides over misdemeanor and delinquency dockets in Bunnell–all offenses punishable by up to a year in jail, including simple battery, criminal mischief, pot possession, prostitution, writing bad checks theft of values below a certain threshold, and so on.
The job is about to get more challenging than it already has in the past couple of years. Three years ago the Legislature passed House Bill 337, increases the jurisdictional threshold between county court and circuit courts from $15,000 to $30,000 starting in January 2020, and to $50,000 starting next January 1. In other words, disputes where the value in contention exceeded $15,000 used to be kicked up to circuit court previously. That amount had been in effect since 1992. Now all such disputes involving values of up to $50,000 will be county court’s responsibility. See that bill’s legislative analysis here.)
“The increased jurisdiction obviously will result in increased caseloads for county judges. However, it will also result in different types of civil cases being routinely filed in county court,” Distler said. “The case management of civil cases, both county and circuit, has been a priority for the Florida Supreme Court. County courts may need additional resources to assist in the timely adjudication of cases.”
Judges in the Conference, as in any peer-to-peer organization, share best practices and compare notes on recent challenges. “In a post-pandemic world, the expanded use of technology continues to bring challenges and opportunities. Access to technology by litigants, the availability of stable internet, and the marginalization of decorum are just a few of the topics routinely discussed amongst the county judges,” the judge said. “Flagler County was uniquely situated to pivot in March 2020. Being on the forefront of technology, Flagler Courts already used Zoom for first appearances and had much of the hardware needed to shift from in-person to virtual proceedings. We were able to expand our processes and reopen earlier than many other jurisdictions, from which our citizens greatly benefited. Access to justice as our world shifts will always be a focus of our courts.”
As for diversity on the bench, Distler put it this way: “Diversity can encompass many areas beyond traditional notions of race, ethnicity, culture and gender. Diversity can include practice areas and experience, upbringing (geographical, family structure, life experiences), educational, etc. The Governor and the voters of the state of Florida determine who take the trial court bench. In my experiences of teaching at new judges college for several years, the new judges are eager, intelligent, thoughtful, thorough, and excited.”