Florida attorneys, lawmakers voice opposition to judicial redistricting at Orlando meeting

Lawmakers and lawyers from Central Florida and throughout the state gathered at the Orange County Courthouse on Friday to speak out against a proposed consolidation of Florida’s judicial circuits, with many referring to the idea as a solution in search of a problem.

Friday’s meeting, the third of seven scheduled meetings and the first with a public hearing, saw dozens of people take the microphone to voice opposition against the consolidation.

Florida has been split into 20 judicial circuits since 1969, when the population was more than three times smaller. Florida House Speaker Paul Renner, a Republican who pushed to review the current circuit boundaries, said consolidation would lead to “substantial cost savings” to taxpayers and greater efficiencies in the judicial process.

But for more than two hours, speakers across the political and legal spectrum, including state attorneys along with public and private defense lawyers, argued consolidation would have the opposite effect, pointing to costly transitions and concerns by the legal communities in rural counties of being merged into the same circuit with more populated areas.

Their comments echoed what was written in letters written to the Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee ahead of Friday’s meeting.

Proposal to merge Florida’s judicial circuits faces backlash from prosecutors, judges

“We stand united, but we’re all unique,” said State Attorney John Durrett of the Third Judicial District, the largest in Florida covering seven mostly rural counties. “We’re farmers, we’re God-fearing conservative people. If the mission here is to save money, we’re all about that. … But if the mission here is to enhance public trust and confidence in the judicial system, the consolidation isn’t the answer as it relates to my home.”

Others pointed to other possible solutions to address Florida’s growing population, like increasing pay for prosecutors and public defenders in order to retain talent and, said one speaker, creating new districts entirely to ease workloads.

“My first reaction [to the committee being formed] was incredulity because if I had expected any recommendation, it would have been to look into possibly increasing the number of judicial districts, not consolidating them,” former attorney Nancy Jacobson said. “Our justice system should not be judged by how cheaply it can be delivered, but by how fairly, effectively and expeditiously it can be delivered.”

Other critics of the proposal said consolidating judicial circuits would amount to “gerrymandering” elections for state attorney and public defender, in light of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ removals of former Hillsborough County prosecutor Andrew Warren and recently ousted Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell.

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“I know that you’re serving as professionals to answer that question, but I will say from a public perspective we’re losing a lot of confidence and trust in this process right now,” Rep. Anna Eskamani said. “Instead of being asked to examine our circuits in a more intentional way, we’re only being asked one question: consolidation. That’s a question alone that seems biased.”

Following the public comment, committee members discussed what areas of the concerns to explore as they collect data for its report on possible consolidation due Dec. 1, including how often legal staff are required to travel within their circuits and how far, especially in rural circuits.

Robert Lee, a Brevard County judge who serves on the commission, acknowledged the concern voiced by Durrett and others who spoke during the hearing that consolidation would worsen that burden.

Judge Keith Carsten, of the Ninth Judicial Circuit which covers Orange and Osceola counties, echoed that need for information on travel times.

“My circuit is a single-county circuit, so everybody’s there, but I think we should try and reach out to somehow get that information from the larger circuits,” Lee said.

The committee will meet again Sept. 15 by videoconference, with the next public hearing scheduled to take place in October.