Monday, October 16, 2023

Major overhaul of Florida’s circuit court system is advancing despite widespread opposition. (Mitch Perry, Florida Phoenix)

Florida House Speaker Paul Renner was at our St. Johns County Legislative Delegation annual meetings on October 13, 2023.  I testified on the proposed St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore, as I have since 2006.  (Video available on the Florida Channel and St. Johns County Government TV.  Approving head nods in evidence from Speaker Renner and Senator Travis Hutson)

During the October 13, 2023 SJC Legislative Delegation meeting, I did not hear any of some 49 citizen witnesses mention any need to redraw the boundaries of Florida's Circuit Court system. 

My late mentor, Nahum Litt, would ask, "Cui bono?"

Who benefits?

You tell mt ee.

Republican Florida House Speaker Paul Renner is a corporate lawyer, a partner in NELSON MULLINS.  His prior legislative foci included tort deform -- nothing to benefit everyday Floridians.

This proposal "stinks on ice," as my mom would say

In the words of Lord Falkland, JFK's favorite conservative British politician, "When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change." I am persuaded by this article, the opinion of Palm Beach County State's Attorney David Aronberg, et al.

From Florida Phoenix:

Major overhaul of Florida’s circuit court system is advancing despite widespread opposition

The idea comes from House Speaker Renner, a Republican

BY:  - OCTOBER 13, 2023 5:11 PM

 Live oaks stand outside the Leon County Courthouse on March 11, 2022. Credit: Michael Moline

A proposal to redraw Florida’s judicial circuits – profoundly altering the way Floridians interact with their court system and potentially kicking some elected state prosecutors out of their jobs – is advancing notwithstanding widespread opposition by the public and professionals who work in the system.

The Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee, assigned to consider consolidating Florida’s 20 judicial circuits, met for the final time in public on Friday in Tampa. Members are charged with submitting recommendations to the Florida Supreme Court by Dec. 1.

Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg spoke for many attending the public hearing.

 Hillsborough County State Attorney Suzy Lopez addressing the Florida Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee on Oct. 13, 2023, in Tampa (Photo Credit: Mitch Perry)

“For all of us – prosecutors and public defenders and law enforcement officials, the answer is clear that this is a bad proposal that should never see the light of day,” he told the Phoenix minutes before the four-and-a-half hour meeting commenced at the George Edgecomb Courthouse.

The idea of consolidating the circuits came from House Speaker Paul Renner, who wrote a letter in June asking the Florida Supreme Court to consider whether the idea is warranted. “I believe that the consolidation of circuits might lead to greater efficiencies and uniformity in the judicial process, thereby increasing public trust and confidence,” Renner wrote at the time.

These are the courts that try most cases under state law, including civil cases worth more than $30,000. They also hear criminal, family law, juvenile delinquency and dependency, mental health, probate, and guardianship cases, according to the Florida Courts website.

Renner noted in his letter that the size of the state’s judicial circuits varies significantly, from approximately 2.7 million people in the Eleventh Circuit (which encompasses all of Miami-Dade County) to fewer than 100,000 people in the Sixteenth Circuit, which includes Monroe County from the southernmost point of mainland Florida through the Florida Keys.

Opposition has been building since the committee began its work.

In a survey of 4,818 members of court, government, and legal professionals collected by the committee, 83.5% responded “no” to whether the effectiveness of their judicial circuit could be improved through consolidation.

The public is even more against the idea. In a survey of 2,087 members of the public also collected by the committee, 94% disagreed that the effectiveness of their circuit would be improved through consolidation.

Deep concern

If consolidation comes to fruition, some elected prosecutors would be redistricted out of their jobs. Judges in small districts might find it harder to gain notice of voters if consolidated into a larger district.

It wouldn’t personally affect Aronberg, who has served as Palm Beach County’s state attorney since 2012 but announced in June he won’t run again next year. But he said he feels so deeply about his community and public safety that he was compelled to travel to Tampa to speak directly to the commission.

 Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg in Tampa on Oct. 13, 2023 (photo credit: Mitch Perry)

“To start reducing [judicial circuits] is only going to jeopardize public safety,” he said. “I have a close relationship with law enforcement, and if the sheriff and the many police chiefs now have to take a number to speak to the state attorney who will now reside in a different county, that does nothing but hurt public safety.”

The Sheriff of Palm Beach County – Ric Bradshaw – appeared via Zoom to back up Aronberg’s words.

“Dave Aronberg’s office is understaffed and overworked,” the 75-year-old law enforcement officer told the committee. “If we get locked in with another circuit, I’m going to have to wait in line to get something done.”

Hillsborough County Judge Lisa A. Allen said she grew up in Clay County in northeast Florida and understands “why it would be attractive” for the Seventh Judicial Circuit [Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns, and Volusia counties) to merge with the Fourth Judicial Circuit [Clay, Duval, and Nassau]. “It makes sense,” she said. “Many of the lawyers who practice in Duval live in St. John’s.”

But it would not work for Hillsborough County, which encompasses the entirety of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit.

“I have more than 10,000 open cases in county civil [court],” she said. “For the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit, we don’t want to be consolidated. I don’t think it would save anybody any money. But I see how it could potentially work for other counties or circuits.”

Other concerns

Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne M. Holt, who has served for nearly 31 years in her position but will retire next year, has made it well known that she opposes the idea of consolidation.

But she used her time before the committee to lobby for other ideas that she hopes would “help all of the justice stakeholders” in Florida, such as a medical marijuana database, “which would allow us at first appearance to basically say, ‘This person has a medical marijuana license, therefore they should not be charged with this particular offense.’”

She thinks the judicial circuits should work with the Department of Corrections to create an electronic felon registration database to help inmates leaving the prison system.

Hillsborough County State Attorney Suzy Lopez, a Republican appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year to replace Democrat Andrew Warren after he suspended Warren from office, offered no direct opinion but emphasized that whatever the commission’s ultimate recommendation, members must ensure that crime victims receive robust resources. DeSantis also suspended Monique Worrell as state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties, another progressive prosecutor like Warren.

“I ask you not to lose sight of mothers, daughters, sons, and fathers who’ve shared their stories with me and trusted me to find justice for them,” she said.

Some public support

Some members of the public supported the idea of consolidating the judicial circuits, which have been in place since 1969.

“Consider that when the current permutation of Florida’s judicial circuits was determined, Richard Nixon was president, the Beatles were still at the top of the Billboard charts, and Neil Armstrong had just walked on the moon,” said Hayden Dublois. “Florida has changed dramatically since then, and I think that we all know it. And our legislative districts, congressional districts, and appellant districts have changed as well. But our judicial circuits haven’t.”

Patrick Kilbane echoed that thought and said the Legislature should make the ultimate decision.

I think it merits this committee’s consideration to have a deep dive and a study done about what the pros and cons would actually be,” he said.

Underlying the debate has been a contention among Democrats that consolidation is a way to gerrymander the system to have fewer of members of their party elected as prosecutors.

After arguing that smaller circuits are better equipped to address the specific needs of communities, Orlando Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani, appearing remotely, added that she was not surprised to see conservative groups speaking in support of judicial consolidation.

“This is another example that this process was always meant to be partisan and has nothing to do with maintaining a strong judiciary,” she said.

Still, fellow Democrat Aronberg, the Palm Beach prosecutor, said he believed that the committee was sincere in its fact finding.

“I’ve heard a lot of talk that this is a gerrymandering proposal,” he said.

“But this committee is doing what it is supposed to do in hearing the testimony, and I don’t think that this committee has a political bent to it. There’ s no hidden agenda with this committee. That’s why I’m here. If I thought the whole thing is cooked, I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t travel from Palm Beach. I think they’re listening in good faith and they’re going to make a recommendation that’s best for the criminal justice system.”

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Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.

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