After Florida lawmakers in 2022 reorganized the state’s appeals courts, House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, is pushing to consolidate circuit courts.
A committee appointed by Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Muniz will hold its first meeting Friday to begin looking at consolidation in the 20-circuit system. Muniz issued an order June 30 appointing the committee after receiving a request from Renner.
“Although Florida’s appellate districts have recently been realigned, the boundaries of Florida’s judicial circuits have been unchanged for decades despite significant population and demographic changes during that timeframe,” Renner wrote in a June 15 letter to Muniz. “The size of our judicial circuits varies widely, ranging from approximately 2.7 million people (in the Eleventh Circuit) to less than 100,000 people (in the Sixteenth Circuit). I believe that the consolidation of circuits might lead to greater efficiencies and uniformity in the judicial process, thereby increasing public trust and confidence. I also believe that the consolidation of circuits would result in improved economies of scale in the judiciary’s back-office operations, leading to substantial cost savings for Florida’s taxpayers.”
Renner represents Flagler County and portions of St. Johns, which are both in the Seventh Judicial Circuit. That circuit also includes Putnam and Volusia counties. The circuit’s combined population is 1.07 million. There has not been an audible or perceptible clamor for altering its boundaries, either to shed a county or graft one on.
In the June 30 order, Muniz said current boundaries of judicial circuits have been in place since 1969.
“Without expressing any view on the merits at this time, the (Supreme) Court agrees that the question of whether there is a need to consolidate Florida’s judicial circuits deserves thoughtful consideration and careful study,” Muniz wrote. “To that end, and to aid the (Supreme) Court in making its ultimate determination, the (Supreme) Court believes it would be beneficial to appoint an assessment committee.”
Under the state Constitution, the Supreme Court can “certify” recommendations to the Legislature about a need to decrease or redefine judicial circuits. The Legislature then would make a decision.
Renner’s letter referred to the 11th Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Miami-Dade County, and the 16th Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Monroe County. Three other circuits are made up of one county each — Broward, Hillsborough and Palm Beach.
By contrast, the 3rd Judicial Circuit is made up of seven rural North Florida counties — Columbia, Dixie, Hamilton, Lafayette, Madison, Suwannee and Taylor. The 2nd Judicial Circuit, the 8th Judicial Circuit and the 14th Judicial Circuit, which are spread across other parts of North Florida, each have six counties.
After decades of having five district courts of appeal, lawmakers last year approved creating a 6th District Court of Appeal. That change, which took effect Jan. 1, also involved revising the jurisdictions of the 1st District Court of Appeal, the 2nd District Court of Appeal and the 5th District Court of Appeal. In some cases, judges had to change districts.
Circuits also have their own judges, state attorneys, public defenders and clerks of court. In his June 30 order, Muniz said the newly formed committee “must limit its findings and recommendations to whether there is a need to consolidate (i.e., reduce the number of) Florida’s judicial circuits.”
The 14-member committee, made up of judges, clerks and attorneys, will be chaired by 4th District Court of Appeal Judge Jonathan Gerber. Muniz asked the committee to submit recommendations by Dec. 1, a little more than a month before the 2024 legislative session starts.
–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida and FlaglerLive