ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida’s court system, prompted by senior Republicans in Tallahassee, is in the early stages of exploring a proposal to cut the number of judicial circuits from its current 20 to eliminate an unspecified number of elected state attorneys and public defenders.
The activity is already igniting fears of major disruptions by overwhelming offices, and additional concerns that the expanded geographical reach of each of the remaining state attorneys and public defenders in the newly consolidated districts will make them less accountable to voters.
The process began in mid-June, when House Speaker Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast) mailed a letter to Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz pitching the consolidation idea and asking for the judicial branch to assess its feasibility after decades of the circuits remaining unchanged.
“The size of our judicial circuits varies widely, ranging from approximately 2.7 million people [Miami] to less than 100,000 people [Key West],” Renner’s letter reported. “I believe the consolidation of circuits might lead to greater efficiencies and uniformity in the judicial process, thereby increasing public trust and confidence.”
Renner’s letter also cited the recent creation of a 6th appellate district in the state and cost savings by “economies of scale”, though he did not mention any specifics other than back end operations.
On June 30, Muñiz exercised his power to begin an assessment process, ordering the convening of an assessment committee to consider whether consolidating the circuits would make the court process more efficient while minimizing disruptions and costs.
“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,” Muñiz wrote.
The committee was tasked with recommending whether there is a need to consolidate or not for the legislature to take up next year. The report is due December 31. Nine judges sit on the committee, including Keith A. Carsten of Osceola County and Christopher Kelly of Volusia County, plus one public defender and one state attorney. Two private attorneys and Polk County’s clerk of the court round out the group.
They were also asked to speak to members of the judicial branch at various levels, as well as hear from the public before making their recommendation.
Despite the committee convening for just its second meeting Friday morning, reaction to the effort has already been met with backlash.
In Orlando, Ninth Circuit State Attorney Monique Worrell’s office has been mailing letters to community leaders asking them to show up at the group’s third meeting on Friday, August 25 at the Orange County Courthouse’s jury assembly room. and speak against the consolidation of the circuit with any others during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Worrell’s letter claims Gov. DeSantis’ office has backed the consolidation effort and the governor would like to see the number of circuits cut in half, from 20 to fewer than 10.
“From a State Attorney’s perspective, the 9th Judicial Circuit needs no geographic modification, and, in fact, a revision of the existing circuit boundaries could result in significant disruption and unnecessary expense to the taxpayers of Florida,” Worrell’s office said. “A larger circuit would weaken the ability for prosecutions to remain consistent circuit-wide and would also hinder any state attorney and public defender’s ability to lead, engage the community, travel, and participate in community events, and live in and be a part of the community in which he or she serves, which is the exact purpose of a centralized local government.”
WFTV has reached out to Governor DeSantis’ office to ask how involved it has been in the consolidation effort and what the governor’s opinion is. It’s unclear if Worrell’s team views this as another attempt for DeSantis to get rid of liberal-leaning attorneys across the state who disagree with his views by consolidating their districts with more conservative counties around them.
DeSantis has targeted the judicial branch before, when he replaced Tampa-area state attorney Andrew Warren last year because of the attorney’s views on abortion. He also toyed with the idea of replacing Worrell, a progressive reformist, because he perceived her to be soft on crime in the spring. In both cases, he argued the prosecutors weren’t doing their jobs.
Worrell wasn’t able to be reached for comment before the publication of this article, while a spokesman for Renner said they would follow up with the speaker for additional context to his letter.
Reaction to the committee from other corners of the state has been equally forceful.
“The State courthouses and communities have long standing traditions, policies, procedures, and norms. To upend these local foundations of the justice system would certainly cause the citizens grave concerns,” several Hillsborough County judges wrote. “These disruptions and need to build trusting relationships would further challenge the public’s confidence in the court system.”
Another Judge, Erika Quartermaine of Sarasota, said the idea of consolidating circuits and cutting the number of elected officials troubled her.
“If we consolidate circuits, it would necessarily consolidate power in the hands of fewer people,” she said. “The decentralization of power provides a check on abuses of power and that is crucial when the rights and liberties of our fellow citizens are at issue.”
The Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association (FPAA) shared letters from 19 of the 20 State Attorneys in Florida giving their thoughts on potential consolidation. The only State Attorney to not offer an assessment – the 13th circuit – was appointed by DeSantis to replace the aforementioned Andrew Warren.
The reactions of the rest ranged from cool to hostile, best summarized by a line in Ft. Pierce State Attorney Thomas Bakkedahl’s letter – “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“The reputation and standards for success that we have established within this Circuit was not built overnight,” Seminole and Brevard State Attorney Phil Archer wrote. “It is crucial that we maintain the integrity of our Circuit.”
A spokesman for the court system emphasized that the committee was still in the first steps of its process, and referred most questions to Muñiz’ order.
That was evidenced by Friday’s meeting, where the various committee members shared reports of conversations with people – including prosecutors, public defenders and judges – and spent a large amount of time hammering out the structures of surveys that will be distributed to professionals and the public. A separate subcommittee was also formed to examine the financial issue.
One committee member said public defenders couldn’t think of any “inefficiencies” among their offices, and mentioned particular fears of rural communities losing their identity. The committee member indicated that some believed an expansion of circuits, so each county is covered by its own circuit, could actually be a more efficient system because of reduced travel time to courthouses.
However, the committee will only consider consolidation, not expansion, and the authority to define how judicial circuits are drawn lies in the legislature, Renner’s office reported.
Despite the effort potentially impacting constitutional offices, officials said voters would not have a say on lawmakers’ decision through a ballot question.
In an interview, FPAA President Jack Campbell, who serves as the State Attorney in Tallahassee, said lawmakers would be wise to listen to the ultimate recommendation of the committee.
“I think it’s very important that legislators understand… the 22 million people in the state of Florida recognize that they are able to have a close working relationship with their chief law enforcement officer, with their chief prosecutor,” Campbell said. “When you sit in your house that’s been burglarized, when it’s your loved one that’s charged with a crime, then it becomes incredibly personal – and you want to know who’s making the decision on whether or not my child goes to jail.”
This is not the first time Florida has considered revising its circuit lines. The court system is tasked with analyzing the circuits each year to consider whether circuits need to be expanded, shrunk or redrawn.
In her letter to the committee, Worrell cited a 2015 government analysis of an effort to decrease judicial boundaries, which ran into the same issues the committee has already started to find.
“While I like consistency, and it’s always important in the law, I also think that each community needs to have the quality of life that they expect,” Campbell said. “We need to have flexibility to be able to give each Floridian the criminal justice system that they want.”
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