How Florida’s 20 judicial circuits could be configured into larger circuits is attracting some high-profile opposition, including county resolutions from the four corners of the state and a rally against it.
For the past 53 years, the state has been divided into 20 judicial circuits but a June 15 letter from House Speaker Paul Renner to state Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz suggests lower costs, more uniformity, and better outcomes if the circuits became larger. That correspondence resulted in a committee study now entering its penultimate month. Recommendations are due Dec. 1.
At the last meeting of the Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee Friday, 285 pages of feedback were in the meeting packet, showing that most of the respondents oppose the consolidation effort. Responses from state agencies predicted cost savings, although most of those responses declined to quantify them without specific scenarios for how the consolidation would look.
Responses from more wide-ranging constituents of the judicial system largely urged the committee to maintain the existing circuits.
“In my opinion, there is absolutely no benefit to consolidating judicial circuits,” wrote Eric Ludin, a Florida Supreme Court certified circuit civil mediator, based in St. Petersburg.
Letters in opposition also came from medical examiners, local bar association presidents and city officials. Representatives for the Florida Police Chiefs Association and the Florida Sheriffs Association said they both needed more information about specifics to render an opinion.
The large majority, more than 80% of the 4,818 responses, cataloged said that neither efficiency nor effectiveness would be improved by consolidating judicial circuits with other ones. Just 2% said the effectiveness of a judicial circuit would be improved through consolidation with another.
The most plain-spoken opponents say the real aim of the effort has nothing to do with cost or efficiency. It’s the equivalent of political gerrymandering for the justice system, driven by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ wish to dilute Democrats’ influence in the judiciary, they say.
In a letter last week, former Eighth District State Attorney and Democratic state Sen. Rod Smith said he understands that as many as 14 North Florida counties, now comprising three circuits, would become one circuit. It would result in a circuit as large a New England state and melt ground zero for higher education, which has a bumper crop of 17- to 22-year-olds, into the same circuit as The Villages, the state’s legendary retirement center.
“To date, I have not spoken with anyone who supports any of the proposed circuit consolidation,” Smith wrote in a letter last week to Judge Jonathan Gerber, a Judge in the Fourth District Court of Appeal and the Chair of the study committee. “The Second, Third and Eighth Circuits currently have State Attorneys and Public Defenders who have so satisfied their constituents expectations, none of them will face any serious opposition next fall.”
Smith, now a Gainesville lawyer in private practice, called the proposal he’s heard about, which has not been made public, a solution in search of a problem.
Renner’s letter that started the consolidation study compared the size of Monroe County’s circuit to Miami-Dade’s. And that has inspired the largest proportion of responses to the survey from the state’s southernmost county.
It has also led Florida Keys’ opponents to organize a rally Sunday against becoming part of a circuit that would take four hours to drive across. After the comparison between the two neighboring circuits, Renner’s letter to Muñiz says, “I believe consolidations of circuits might lead to greater efficiencies and uniformity in the judicial process.”
But rally organizer Adalberto Vigil, a Key Largo bail bondsman, sees nothing less than the power of 51,270 Monroe County voters rendered null and void against its mammoth neighbor to the north, which has nearly 1.5 million voters.
Nearly 97% of the more than 1,400 from Monroe County who completed surveys for the consolidation study answered “no” to the question of whether the circuit’s effectiveness would be improved through consolidation with another judicial circuit. Even though Monroe County accounts for less than one-half of 1% of the state’s population, it accounted for the largest proportion of responses out of any circuit.
“All our Judges, all our State Attorneys, all those positions will be filled by people from Miami,” Vigil said, noting that running for office in Monroe County happens on a scale that Miami-Dade County elections dwarf.
“If you’re going to run for a Judge position in Miami it costs $2 (million) or $3 million,” Vigil said. “If I want to run an election here, my cost is $20,000.”
Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward has said publicly the committee’s effort to upend the existing judicial circuit configuration is really an effort to keep voters from returning the State Attorneys DeSantis suspended to office. State Attorneys Andrew Warren and Monique Worrell were both elected in circuits that lean heavily Democratic.
Ward said he’s hoping that Sunday’s turnout shows how strongly Monroe County — which leans heavily Republican — opposes becoming part of Miami-Dade County’s judicial circuit. A lot of his constituents moved from Miami-Dade County because they wanted to live in a smaller community, where the government is more responsive.
“This is making mega, mega circuits,” he said.
“What’s so terrible (this is being done) at the expense of everyone else in the state,” Ward said.
“Save Our Courts” rally is planned from 4 to 6 p.m., Sunday in the front parking lot of the Juice House, at MM 103 in Key Largo.