a judge's gaven and a book on a table
A state committee is exploring the possibility of consolidating some of Florida’s judicial circuits, including combining Monroe County with the much larger Miami-Dade legal system. CONTRIBUTED

Have you ever considered what it would be like NOT to have any local representation on our judiciary or through our locally elected state attorney and public defender offices? Local  courthouse staff and essential courtroom services also could be severely affected if the Florida Supreme Court and state legislature approve the consolidation of some judicial circuits. 

State officials are seeking public input on the potential consolidation of Monroe County’s 16th Judicial Circuit with Miami-Dade’s 11th Judicial Circuit, which would affect the composition of Monroe County’s local legal system.

Monroe County’s law enforcement and judicial stakeholders are against this consolidation as it will affect all county residents.

Monroe County encompasses Florida’s smallest circuit, and Miami-Dade is Florida’s largest. County Mayor Craig Cates raised his concerns in a letter to Florida’s Speaker of the House.

“A look at the voter registration numbers dispels any argument that Monroe County voters will have a meaningful voice in electing local representation should the two circuits be consolidated,” said Cates. “Monroe County’s 50,762 registered voters comprise only 3.3% of a combined electorate of 1,532,614 for a consolidated Judicial Circuit due to Miami-Dade’s 1,481,852 registered voters.”

Increasingly important would be local issues important to Monroe County residents, like resource violations, which may take a back burner to more extensive criminal-related court proceedings on the mainland. Monroe County Assistant County Attorney Christine Limbert is a part of the local working group closely following the topic.

“I fear that matters important to locals, like over-the-limit lobster violations that affect our environmentally sensitive ecosystem and our local commercial fishermen, won’t get the same attention in Miami-Dade given their larger caseload,” said Limbert. “The relationships between our local law enforcement and state attorney and public defender’s office would be a very different process if based in Miami.”

16th Judicial Court State Attorney Dennis Ward, who prosecutes many resource violations in the Florida Keys, said, “The Florida Keys are unquestionably one of the most unique and environmentally diverse areas in Florida, the United States, and on earth. To preserve this pristine ecosystem for our grandchildren, the character of the Keys, and our residents’ access to justice, the Keys should not be merged with any other circuit.”

To make it as easy as possible for Florida Keys residents, located from Ocean Reef to Key West, Monroe County has courthouses located in Key West, Marathon, and Plantation Key. Driving, it is 165 miles from Jackson Square in Key West to Miami-Dade’s courthouse.

“The consolidation could lead to severe logistical challenges for all stakeholders involved in the judicial process,” said Robert Lockwood, public defender, 16th Judicial Court. “Residents of the Florida Keys would face significant hardships having to travel long distances to attend court hearings or access essential legal services in Miami-Dade. This could result in delays, increased costs, and potentially a lack of representation for some individuals (especially the indigent), further exacerbating disparities in access to justice.”

To voice your opinion on the consolidation, take the survey at flcourts.gov/Administration-Funding/Court-Councils-Commissions-and-Committees/Judicial-Circuit-Assessment-Committee/JCAC-Surveys. The survey could take about 10-20 minutes to fill out depending on how detailed someone would want to be in the responses, and has some technical questions on it, but it will be well worth having a voice on this important issue. Survey responses are due on Friday, Sept. 1 by 5 p.m. The committee is also meeting on Aug. 25 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the public can register for the virtual meeting at flcourts.gov/Administration-Funding/Court-Councils-Commissions-and-Committees/Judicial-Circuit-Assessment-Committee.

In addition to resource violations, the Judicial Circuit courts oversee cases involving money disputes; serious crimes (felonies); divorces, juvenile delinquency and dependency matters, and other family law matters; and probate (estate) matters, as well as cases involving landlord-tenant disputes and less serious criminal matters (misdemeanors), and traffic offenses.

The timeline includes the Florida Supreme Court collecting data and public input and then using the criteria of effectiveness, efficiency, access to courts, professionalism, public trust and confidence, and additional criteria. The Supreme Court must give the Legislature its recommendation by Dec. 1, 2023. The Legislature will then decide and determine the next steps during its 2024 session.

The Monroe County Board of County Commissioners will also vote on a resolution at its September meeting opposing the consolidation.