Republican State Attorney blasts judicial circuit consolidation as effort to advance Gov. DeSantis’ political aims
Dennis W. Ward, State Attorney for the 16th Judicial Circuit of Florida.

Dennis Ward
Dennis Ward says the consolidation study is an attempt to keep suspended Democratic State Attorneys from regaining their offices via ballot box.

The Republican State Attorney in the Florida Keys is blasting a current effort to consolidate decades-old judicial circuit boundaries as pure politics designed to keep suspended Democratic prosecutors from winning at the ballot box next year.

Dennis Ward, the top prosecutor for the 16th Judicial Circuit, is sounding the alarm about plans he predicts will be fast-tracked through the Legislature this coming Session to serve Gov. Ron DeSantis’ political aims.

He said he’s willing to speak out at the risk of getting fired because of the scope of the disaster he sees resulting from this project. Other State Attorneys have spoken out against the effort too. Palm Beach County’s State Attorney Dave Aronberg wrote in response to the study, “There’s no need to make changes to this circuit.” But Ward is speaking even more plainly.

“It’s my understanding and my belief that this is being done to water down the support for the State Attorneys that have been removed so they can’t win an election in 2024.” Ward said of the consolidation study.

In official documents, state officials say a reassessment of the current judicial circuit configuration is a logical response to how the state has grown since the 20 judicial circuits were drawn in 1969 and the need for more uniformity and efficiency, but Ward said he doesn’t believe those are the reasons at all.

Orlando-area State Attorney Monique Worrell was suspended last month, for what DeSantis said was a dereliction of duty. Elected by 67% in 2020, she has filed for re-election in 2024.

A year earlier, DeSantis suspended twice-elected Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren for his pledge not to prosecute women for seeking abortions and his stated resistance to criminalizing gender-affirming care for minors.

Warren has not yet filed to regain his office via voter say-so, but he has been pursuing legal remedies to his suspension. He is currently waiting on a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

But there’s no hint of that controversy in the letter House Speaker Paul Renner sent to Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz June 15 that got the ball rolling on the consolidation study committee. Renner noted that “the size of our judicial circuits varies widely,” ranging from about 2.7 million people in the 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami-Dade County to less than 100,000 people in the 16th Judicial Circuit in Monroe County.

“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.

Ward, who has been elected State Attorney three times, says those statements ignore the reality that, although Monroe County — and numerous other Florida counties — might seem small on paper, millions of tourists fall into the jurisdiction.

“He doesn’t sit here and watch the traffic on the weekends from 10 o’clock in the morning to six o’clock at night — bumper to bumper,” Ward said. “He doesn’t look at the arrest reports that we have and how many people that we prosecute in our court system don’t even live in Monroe County. And I think this same is probably true for the smallest circuits in the Panhandle with all the people that they serve over there.”

Ward says that DeSantis’ political vendetta will wreak havoc on the judicial system throughout the state — and in his district particularly.

The committee report is due Dec. 1, but Ward says he has every reason to believe his judicial circuit is about to get swallowed up into Miami-Dade County’s — with disastrous results.

Voters in Monroe County, some parts of which are four hours away from Miami-Dade by car, will amount to 3% of the voters in this new judicial circuit, he noted. That means the southernmost county will have no chance of electing its own judges, or having the kind of justice that suits a smaller-scale operation with distinctly different priorities than the county to its north.

He doubts, for instance, that violations of law governing marine and fish life are going to have much priority in Miami-Dade County’s courts, but they must matter in his neck of the woods and beaches.

“Our natural resources are inextricably intertwined with our economy,” Ward said. “We seek jail time for those kinds of cases.”

Already, his office is being taxed with consuming demands for data from this study effort, detracting from his efforts to enforce laws, he said.

Most other State Attorneys wrote letters to the study committee attesting to how well things are working now and pointing out each circuit’s unique attributes.

“Our community faces unique challenges and our residents, elected and community leaders, and criminal justice partners have developed exemplary programs and policies that serve the constituents of this thriving circuit,” Broward County State Attorney Harold Pryor wrote in his letter to the committee. “We believe it is a model of this nation’s criminal justice system.”

But Ward said he feels compelled to go further, considering the Florida Keys’ continued existence as a worldwide destination and desirable place to live could be at stake.

“I’ll fight this war for as long as it takes,” Ward said, noting that an Oct. 8 rally is planned against it. “They could ruin the Florida Keys. The Florida Keys will be just like some of the cities in California or Oregon. I just don’t want that to happen here.”

“I value our resources and our citizens’ safety too much,” he added.

Anne Geggis

Anne Geggis is a South Florida journalist who began her career in Vermont and has worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Gainesville Sun covering government issues, health and education. She was a member of the Sun-Sentinel team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Parkland high school shooting. You can reach her on Twitter @AnneBoca or by emailing [email protected].


  • JD

    September 12, 2023 at 1:14 pm

    Please please, more moderate and conservative Republicans speak up about the populist regime before it becomes authoritarianism.

    I don’t say it lightly, but the slide is already there with the removal of our democratic republic guardrails.

    Please have the adults come back to the table and stop the food fights.

    • Edward Freeman

      September 12, 2023 at 2:13 pm


    • TJC

      September 12, 2023 at 2:22 pm

      “…in the service of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ political aims.”
      That says it all. A few moderate, rational voices — a “top prosecutor,” a State Attorney — may get their voices heard here on FP, but in Tallahassee the GOP legislators are dedicated to the Man Who Would Be President, so much so that they care not a bit about the damage they will do to the state’s justice system. This is not about the citizens of Florida and what is best for them, this is about DeSantis and the coat-tail hangers-on in Tallahassee who dream starry-eyed about a cabinet appointment in Washington D.C. Because it turns out that all that yap-smack talk about the “swamp” up there is just camouflage for their ambition to get there and take a swim. What a sorry bunch of suck-ups.

      • JD

        September 12, 2023 at 2:30 pm

        And as far as I can decipher, there is zero recall or vote of no confidence mechanism, barring something deemed illegal done by the governor (which they keep changing the laws so nothing is illegal). At best you get unconstitutional laws that gets overturned in appellate court.

        Treat this like a health care scare and clean up the system before it’s broken. That result won’t be the freedom they think it is.

  • Mike Spear

    September 12, 2023 at 2:11 pm

    While I agree with the Prosecutors’ assessment of the motivations of Governor DiSaster in this matter is solely about keeping the elected prosecutors from being re-elected by the people. The Governor never misses an opportunity to undermine democracy and subvert the will of the people of Florida. However, that doesn’t mean that his proposal is completely without merit. Some of the smaller circuits have become extremely corrupt. For example, the 14th Judicial Circuit based in Panama City has become so corrupt that guilt or innocence is no longer much of a factor in convictions. Consider this. In the last half of 2020 Panama City’s Bay County (pop 175,000) sent 297 of its citizens to state prison. Over the same time period Miami-Dade County with a population of nearly 3,000,000, sent 156 of its people to state prison. So you have a one in 590 chance of going to prison in Bay County, while in Miami-Dade your chance is 1 in 17,319. Does anyone believe that this is equal justice? Are the people of Bay County 30 times worse than the people of Miami-Dade? In the 14th Circuit, justice is no longer about guilt or innocence, or even crime or protecting the public. It is solely about enriching judicial and law enforcement officials.

    • TJC

      September 12, 2023 at 2:28 pm

      This is an interesting assessment, and good to know. I have to wonder if the systematic miscarriage of justice as you describe it here has any bearing on the GOP legislators who will most likely jam this plan through. I suspect it means nothing to them. They seem more interested in politics than justice.

  • Earl Pitts "The Ronald's UnOfficial Campaign Manager" American

    September 12, 2023 at 3:34 pm

    Dont worry Florida,
    I, Earl Pitts American, just cut a deal with Tallahassee Power Brokers to have State Atty
    Ward’s political idenity downgraded from Republican to Dook 4 Brains RINO. I, Earl Pitts American, noticed Ward was spending an inordanite amount of time in those Key West Homer Testical bars and advised him some time ago to clean his act up if he wanted to avoid a downgrade to Dook 4 Brains RINO status.
    Sometimes even I, Earl Pitts American, can not save a back-slider.

    • Ocean Joe

      September 12, 2023 at 8:33 pm

      Earl, you’re no Dennis Ward.

      Ward prosecuted a number of big shots in Key West who thought they were above the law. He paid a political price for it.
      He walked the walk, as a former Marine, a beat cop in Miami-Dade, asst public defender, now state attorney. Not a desk jockey JAG officer like your hero.

      If you poach lobsters he’s hell on wheels. So stay in Gilchrist County or whatever hole you call home.

    • John Q. Public

      September 13, 2023 at 8:43 am

      looks like you are the SFB here sir.

      • John Q.Public

        September 13, 2023 at 8:44 am

        this comment was meant for earl pitts.

Comments are closed.


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