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Fla. Supremes, Legislature choose pork over facts to add unwanted, costly sixth appeals court

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The current configuration of Florida’s five District Courts of Appeal is on the left. The proposed addition of a Sixth District, and the changes it would bring, is on the right.

By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org

Florida is getting another expensive brick-and-mortar state appeals court, even though the judges who can best determine the need said “No thanks.”

A proposal to add a sixth district court of appeal to the central Gulf Coast is sailing through the Legislature this session. Last Tuesday the House and Senate budget conference agreed to spend $50 million on the new courthouse, according to Florida Politics.

When he approves the deal, Gov. Ron DeSantis will have the opportunity to name six more reliable conservatives to appellate judgeships. Judges on those district courts handle appeals from circuit trial courts and have the final say about most areas of law.

The courthouse plan seems so much like political pork, it practically oinks. The location is a foregone conclusion.

“All signs are pointing to Lakeland,” said Blaise Trettis, public defender for the 18th Judicial Circuit in Brevard County. He was a dissenting member of a Florida Supreme Court-appointed committee that endorsed “at least one more” appeals court.

SIXTH IS ALL ABOUT LAKELAND

Lakeland has a high profile these days. It’s the hometown of Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady. His wife, Republican Jennifer Canady, is running for House District 40 (Lakeland).

The future $50-million courthouse is a gift to Senate Appropriations Chair Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, whose husband, Judge John Stargel, sits on the Second District Court of Appeal. Because the old Lakeland district courthouse is closed due to sick building syndrome, Stargel and his colleagues commute to rented chambers in Tampa.

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Florida Chief Justice Charles Canady and his wife, Jennifer Canady, candidate for House District 40.

Last year House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, got his desired $50 million for a Second District courthouse in his home county of Pinellas. Stargel’s appropriations budget earmarked $50 million for a Lakeland courthouse, but Sprowls won that round and the building is going to St. Petersburg.

Adding a sixth district court that needs its own headquarters neatly solves the problem of too little pork to go around.

“You don’t have to speculate about Stargel and Sprowls, who pretty much admitted, ‘This [Pinellas courthouse] is step one, you’ll get yours in step two,’ ” Trettis said.

He said he voted against revamping the district courts–all will see changes except the two in South Florida–because “I was selected for the committee and I made a decision based on the facts.”

APPEALS IN ‘PRECIPITOUS DECLINE’

Trettis and three district court judges from the 15-person committee focused on statistics that show “a precipitous decline” in appeals over the past generation, despite population growth.

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Second District Judge John Stargel and his wife, Rep. Kelli Stargel

Their minority report says in fiscal year 2018-19, the most recent period when district court activity wasn’t affected by COVID-19, there were 20,286 filings. That’s lower than any year since 1994-95, when there were 20,225 filings.

Clearly district court judges aren’t overburdened; nor do they claim to be. The report notes that all five district court chiefs told their boss, Canady, they see no need for any change.

“Who would be in the best position to know whether district court judges are overworked or not?” Trettis asked. “When you look at the drastic reduction in caseloads, I don’t see how any objective person could come to the conclusion that Florida needs a sixth district court of appeal.”

WANTED: JACKSONVILLE JUDGES

Yet a 10-person committee majority voted to recommend adding “at least one” court. They reasoned this would “promote public trust and confidence based on geography and demographic composition and help attract a diverse group of well-qualified applicants for judicial vacancies.”

Judges must live in the districts where they work. At some point in their research the committee decided that Jacksonville lawyers are underrepresented on the district courts; they used this perceived problem to justify the changes.

Trettis said he found this purported Jacksonville judge gap “even more disturbing” than the committee’s “vague” reference to promoting public trust in the judicial system. 

“That’s a selfish, meaningless reason to incur such an expenditure of $50 million or more for a new courthouse,” Trettis said.

The Florida Supreme Court adopted the committee’s suggestions for a district court overhaul with a 6-1 vote on Nov. 24. Justice Ricky Polston dissented.

POLSON OBJECTS TO SIXTH COURT

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Justice Ricky Polston

He wrote it’s “indisputable” that over the years, “numerous well-qualified Jacksonville applicants” for district court seats were passed over. But that’s on the governors who do the choosing, not because the current district court map creates an “inability to attract well-qualified applicants.”

Polston found no “compelling need” for a new court. He wrote that the overhaul “is analogous to rebuilding a ship for what should be swapping out a couple of deck chairs at most.”

Florida doesn’t add district courts very often. The last time was 43 years ago in 1979, when the Legislature created the Fifth District Court of Appeal.

POLITICS, NOT PARTISANSHIP

Florida Supreme Court historian Neil Skene wrote about the political maneuvering which put that new court in Daytona Beach and moved the First District out of the Supreme Court’s basement and into a building of its own a block away in Tallahassee.

In an interview with Florida Bulldog, he talked about similarities to what’s happening now, as well as fundamental differences.

“Sure, there was politics in the creation of the Fifth District Court of Appeal, but it wasn’t about partisanship or ideology,” Skene said. It responded to a “litigation explosion” based on new laws passed in the 1960s and 1970s that empowered Floridians to sue over their consumer, environmental and civil rights.

“That kind of litigation growth doesn’t exist today, and in fact, rights are being curtailed along with access to the courts,” he said.

“And there were no court-packing undertones in 1979. Today, packing the court with DeSantis supporters is a major concern for people who value an independent judiciary. The nominating process is controlled by the governor, and he is making membership in the conservative Federalist Society a litmus test,” Skene said.

“The politics of the new district in 1979 were not about political ideology but about economic benefit,” he said. “It was about politics, certainly, but it wasn’t about partisanship.”

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