A state committee is preparing to recommend no mergers or consolidations of Florida’s 20 judicial circuits to the state Supreme Court and the Florida Legislature. The decision by 14 members of the state’s court system was unanimous during a Nov. 3 virtual meeting, and it came after many hours weighing the data from thousands of surveys from law professionals and the public.
Tasked with determining whether there’s a need for consolidation, the committee believed such a move wouldn’t improve efficiency within the courts nor result in any substantial taxpayer savings. Part of the recommendation included no merger of the state’s smallest circuit court in Monroe County with a larger circuit court system in Miami-Dade — as outlined by House Speaker Paul Renner in a June letter to the state Supreme Court.
Committee members also acknowledged the uniqueness of certain circuit courts, like the 16th Judicial Circuit in Monroe County, and the high level of public trust in the system — as evidenced by the 1,400-plus survey responses from Keys residents to the committee.
Joining Keys residents were the cities of Key West and Marathon, village of Islamorada and Monroe County Board of County Commissioners, which all sent resolutions to Tallahassee explaining their reasons against the move. There was even a rally in Key Largo that brought the likes of Monroe State Attorney Dennis Ward, Monroe County Public Defender Robert Lockwood and State Rep. Jim Mooney.
“It’s quite clear within that community and in each village, city and the county coming forward that they’re in opposition to consolidation,” said Chief Judge Shawn Crane of the 6th Judicial Circuit.
Some committee members pointed to the Keys’ high cost of living and the frequent turnover of assistant district attorneys in the Keys. Some stressed the need for more funding from the state Legislature to boost pay.
“It’s really important that whatever is done, consolation is not solving it,” said Carlos Martinez, public defender for the 11th Judicial Circuit. “Whatever the Legislature can do to increase salaries significantly to reduce turnover throughout the Keys in the court system, that would be a significant improvement in efficiency.”
In June, Renner tasked the state Supreme Court with analyzing a consolidation of the 20 judicial circuits. In his letter to Chief Justice Carlos G. Muñiz, 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.
Monroe County Attorney Bob Shillinger said the committee’s decision is one step closer to ensuring no consolidation of Monroe County and Miami-Dade’s circuit courts.
“I would like to thank the stakeholders and the community members who came together in one voice to express opposition to this proposal,” he said.
Ward told the Keys Weekly he was particularly pleased with the residents’ involvement in the process and their realization of the ramifications if the 16th Judicial Circuit merged with the largest judicial circuit in Miami-Dade County. Ward also praised the JCAC’s hard work and due diligence throughout the process.
“What I hope is that it’s over and it won’t go to the state Legislature,” Ward said. “I’m hoping the Supreme Court administration receives the report from the committee and the chief judge doesn’t recommend it either and passes it to the speaker of the House, Paul Renner and (he) agrees with the committee.”
Ward added that he doesn’t see how the Legislature can have a more educated discussion on the topic than the JCAC, which is composed of judges and law professionals who are familiar with the court system.
The committee will begin to draft a report based on its recommendation. The Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee will meet virtually Nov. 17 to review the draft report. Dec. 1 is the deadline to submit a final report to the Supreme Court.