Florida Keys residents aren’t holding back their opinions over a potential consolidation of Monroe County’s court system with a larger neighboring county.
In June, Florida House Speaker Paul Renner tasked the state Supreme Court with analyzing a consolidation of the 20 judicial circuits. In his letter to Chief Justice Carlos G. Muniz, Renner said the courts have gone unchanged for decades despite significant population and demographic shifts over that time. Renner’s letter alluded to the size of certain judicial courts, specifically the 2.7 million people within the 11th Circuit, which encompasses Miami-Dade, and the fewer than 100,000 people in Monroe County within the 16th Circuit.
A 14-person judicial assessment committee made up of judges, attorneys and a court clerk has until Dec. 1 to submit a final recommendation report. The committee’s representatives span from the Fourth Circuit in Duval County, the Sixth Circuit in Pinellas County to the 11th Circuit in Miami-Dade County. There’s no representative from the 16th Circuit, however.
In August, a public survey released by the committee resulted in a total of 2,087 responses throughout the state. Of the respondents, 1,490, or 71%, came from Monroe County residents, many who believe a consolidation could pose a severe detriment to the marine and wildlife cases which could fall to the wayside.
Bay County was the next closest in public surveys sent, with a total of 200.
The large number of responses from Monroe County caught the attention of committee member Laird Lile, a Naples-based attorney, during a Sept. 15 virtual committee meeting. He asked the data presenter, Dustin Metz of the state courts administrator office, whether the flood of surveys from the Keys affected data integrity with only 29% of respondents from other areas of the state.
“It’s an anomaly there,” Lile said.
A majority of residents responding to the survey believed the judicial circuit courts appropriately expedited cases with judges issuing appropriate decisions. Residents responding to the survey also believed judges and staff are educated, highly skilled and able to perform their duties.
An overwhelming number of respondents, 93%, said a consolidation would not enhance the effectiveness of the courts. And 82% of the survey responses believed the current size and geographic boundaries of the judicial circuit wouldn’t further foster public trust and confidence. And 76% of respondents didn’t believe any cost savings would come out of consolidating the courts.
Results from a separate survey issued to court, government and legal professionals showed similar beliefs. In all, 83% of respondents to the survey believed the effectiveness of the courts wouldn’t improve if consolidations occurred.
With telling survey results also came written comments from attorneys, law enforcement officials and residents. Rev. Allison Defoor, former public defender, assistant state attorney and judge in Monroe County, submitted a letter to the committee explaining the importance of maintaining a small circuit court like the 16th.
“From all of these seats in the justice arena, I say flatly that the delivery of justice closest to the people is more just, and more respected by all concerned, and suspect more economical with less waste. We should be looking at the idea of more, not fewer circuits,” he wrote.
Members of the judicial assessment committee will convene for another virtual meeting on Friday, Sept. 29 at 11 a.m. to examine surveys from the public and law professionals. Florida Fourth Circuit of Appeals Judge Jonathan Gerber, the committee chairman, said staff is currently tabulating and working to condense written responses. Members will also discuss fiscal and operational impacts associated with consolidating the courts.
A second public hearing is scheduled for Oct. 13 at 10 a.m. in Orlando or Tampa. The committee is expected to finalize findings and recommendations by Nov. 3, and a final report is expected to be presented during a Nov. 29 meeting. The committee isn’t expected to hold any meetings in the southern parts of Florida.