Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee to take public testimony October 13 in Tampa
The Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee will hold its anticipated final public hearing regarding judicial circuit consolidation on Friday, October 13, at the George Edgecomb Courthouse on East Twiggs Street in Tampa.
Scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., the public hearing is also accessible via Zoom. To register to attend virtually, click here. Those who plan to attend in person do not need to register. But those who would like to speak during the public hearing portion, either in person or virtually, should complete the “Public Hearing Appearance Form,” in advance of the meeting.
This is the second and anticipated final public hearing for the committee before it begins its deliberations on House Speaker Paul Renner’s proposal to consolidate judicial circuits. Renner, a Palm Coast attorney, suggests consolidation of circuits might generate substantial cost savings and “increase public trust and confidence” in the judiciary through greater efficiency and uniformity in the judicial process.
The committee is under a tight deadline as the court’s order sets a December 1 deadline for the panel to submit its recommendations. Those recommendations will go to the state Supreme Court, which will likely issue guidance to lawmakers who will convene the next 60-day regular session in January and potentially pursue the consolidation.
At an August JCAC public hearing in Orlando, judges, lawmakers, lawyers, and community activists lined up for hours to express their opposition to consolidation. None of the witnesses who addressed the committee that day spoke in support of consolidation.
Florida chief judges, the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, and the Florida Public Defender Association, oppose consolidation.
The Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee Fiscal and Resources Subcommittee’s recent preliminary report suggests that consolidation would be a fiscal wash, or in some instances, cost taxpayers more.
“The Subcommittee determined that judicial circuit consolidation would have an overall estimated neutral or no fiscal impact as it relates to the work of the trial courts, clerks, and other justice entities,” the report states.
“Notably, the Subcommittee determined that judicial circuit consolidation would have an estimated short-term negative fiscal impact for specific functional categories, such as technology.”
A negative fiscal impact means cost increase.
The report states that the “trial courts and clerks anticipate this category to generate negative fiscal impact in the short term due to transition and implementation costs.”
Furthermore, consolidation would have “an overall estimated negative fiscal impact as it relates to the work of the state attorneys and public defenders,” the report states.
The Board of Governors last week agreed to issue a comment to the Supreme Court panel and a Florida Bar comment will be forwarded by October 13, when the panel meets for the public hearing and begins its final deliberations.
The panel also received nearly 7,000 responses from two online surveys, one for members of the public and another for “court, government and legal professionals.”
The committee received 4,818 court, government and legal professional surveys, records show. Of those respondents, 41% — 1,995 — identified themselves as a “private attorney.”
Of those same respondents, 37% — 1,795 — said they “strongly agree” that their judicial circuit “expedites appropriate cases.” Just 3.4% said they “strongly disagree.”
Nearly 34% — 1,634 — of the respondents said they “strongly agree” that their judicial circuit handles its workload “in a manner permitting its judges to prepare written decisions when warranted.” Just 4.8% said they “strongly disagree.”
Another 37.6% said they “strongly agree” that the judicial circuit is “capable of accommodating changes in statutes or case law impacting workload or court operations.” Just 6.1% said they “strongly disagree.”
The committee received 2,087 surveys from members of the public. However, staff was quick to note that 71% of those —1,490 — were from respondents who indicated they were served by the 16th Judicial Circuit, which consists of just Monroe County.
Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz created the Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee June 30 via Administrative Order SC23-35, in response to a letter from Renner asking the court to consider whether a consolidation of the state’s existing judicial circuits is warranted, noting the current boundaries of the judicial circuits have been in place since 1969, “notwithstanding the significant population and demographic changes of the past 50 years.”
“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,” according to the AO creating the assessment committee.
Pursuant to its charges, the committee must assume in making its findings and recommendations that district court of appeal (DCA) boundaries will remain unchanged. In other words, consolidation may not occur across DCA boundaries.
The order stresses that the Supreme Court, before recommending any change in judicial structure, must consider “less disruptive adjustments” to judicial branch operations.
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