By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
A new push to “consolidate” Florida courts has people talking about politics — more precisely, about gerrymandering.
A committee of 14 stakeholders in the judicial system met for the first time Friday. They have 4½ months to formulate an answer to this question: Does the state need all 20 of its trial court circuits?
But what’s billed as a no-brainer, long overdue shake-up to streamline court operations and save money isn’t so simple, knowledgeable observers say. They contend that consolidation has much more to do with redrawing the judicial circuit map so Republicans can put the voters they want in the places they want them; in a word, gerrymandering.
The observers consider who raised the court consolidation issue, who’s leading the exploratory committee and the timing related to next year’s elections. They track a record that shows the Republican leaders of Florida’s unitary government want a court system devoted to boosting the state party’s standard-bearer, presidential candidate Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“It would certainly seem incongruous for Republicans to claim they have no designs to increase their control of the judicial system,” legal historian Neil Skene said.
“Consolidation may mean that there are fewer courthouses and reduced availability to people, especially those with transportation challenges,” he said. The committee probably won’t focus on public access to courts, however.
STATE ATTORNEY’S PAYBACK
“It’s safe to say that politics is the primary motivation” for court consolidation, said Andrew Warren, the suspended state attorney for Hillsborough County. “You’d have to be living under a rock to think that politics wasn’t the primary motivation.”
Warren, a Democrat, knows firsthand about politics and the justice system. Last August DeSantis suspended him from office, claiming Warren was shirking his duty to follow state law by saying he wouldn’t enforce a strict abortion ban.
Warren fought back in state and federal courts. The Florida Supreme Court decided last month that he’d waited too long to file a petition, thereby ducking a ruling on the merits of his case.
Judge Robert Hinkle of U.S. District Court in Tallahassee sided with Warren.
DeSantis took action “ostensibly on the ground that Mr. Warren had blanket policies not to prosecute certain kinds of cases,” he wrote. “The allegation was false.”
Still, Hinkle said he lacked authority to restore the Tampa prosecutor to his elected office.
Now Warren is waiting for a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta. That’s likely to be the final word on his suspension challenge.
SPEAKER RENNER’S REQUEST
On June 15 House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, asked Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Muniz to explore the idea of trimming the number of judicial circuits. The Legislature hasn’t changed the circuit map since 1969.
Circuits vary widely in size. Renner mentioned the largest, the 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami-Dade County with a population of 2.7 million, and the smallest, the 16th Judicial Circuit in Monroe County with fewer than 100,000 residents.
The two counties are contiguous. That means it would be easy, at least in theory, for Miami-Dade’s circuit to absorb Monroe’s. It also means a Key West resident might have to travel 150 miles to court in downtown Miami.
Five counties each comprise a single circuit — Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward, Palm Beach and Hillsborough. In rural North Florida, three circuits cover six counties apiece and one circuit covers seven counties.
Every circuit has an elected state attorney, public defender and clerk of courts. They’re identified by party affiliation, unlike elected trial court judges who conduct nonpartisan campaigns.
Court consolidation “might lead to greater efficiencies and uniformity in the judicial process, thereby increasing public trust and confidence,” Renner wrote in his June 15 letter to Muniz. It could produce “improved economies of scale in the judiciary’s back-office operations, leading to substantial cost savings for Florida taxpayers.”
MONEY FOR THE 6TH DCA
Yet Skene questioned the likelihood of those benefits accruing. “Scale today comes more from technology, not from administrative structures,” he said. “Many efficiencies can be realized with statewide tech infrastructure and greater use of online services.”
“I suspect the economy of scale idea will not be materially realized and is mainly window-dressing for gerrymandering,” Skene said.
Renner’s newfound interest in saving tax dollars caught the attention of Blaise Trettis, public defender for the 18th Judicial Circuit in Brevard and Seminole counties.
Trettis, a Republican, served on a Supreme Court-appointed committee in 2021 that looked into whether the state’s five appellate courts were sufficient. The committee recommended and the Legislature approved a Sixth District Court of Appeal that opened for business in Lakeland on Jan. 1.
Creation of the new court and related personnel shifts allowed DeSantis to appoint a half-dozen conservative judges to appellate posts.
The committee’s recommendation wasn’t unanimous. Trettis and all four of the voting members who were appellate judges didn’t want another appellate court.
‘PUBLIC TRUST AND CONFIDENCE’
“We voted no for the reason that the caseload in appellate courts was at a 23-year low,” Trettis said. “So the Legislature sees the report, sees the [9-5] vote, and they vote for it knowing it will cost millions every year. So you have to wonder, with this recent history,” what’s driving the court consolidation project.
Notably, a majority of Trettis’s fellow committee members based their vote for adding a court mainly on fostering “public trust and confidence” in the justice system. Writing to Muniz last month, Renner used the same rationale to justify circuit court consolidation.
In response, Muniz named a 14-member exploratory committee: one clerk of courts, one public defender, one state attorney, one county court judge, two private attorneys, seven circuit court judges and one appellate jurist who is the chair, Judge Jonathan Gerber of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach.
Gerber must be known to the DeSantis administration. A trial judge for seven years and an appellate judge for 15, he twice made the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission’s shortlist for recent openings on the high court.
He has the right resume. Gerber’s a Federalist Society member who worked for eight years as a civil attorney at Shutts & Bowen, the law firm incubator of DeSantis favorites such as Justice Renatha Francis.
“When I think about it, I think yeah, that’s who you’d put in charge to make sure you get the outcome you want,” said an observer who spoke about Gerber on condition of anonymity.
Assuming the committee recommends consolidation by its Dec. 1 deadline, legislators will have enough time to design a new circuit map at their next session starting in January and use it for the November 2024 elections, Skene said.
A GOP-FRIENDLY MAP
It’s way too early to predict how a new map would look, but if gerrymandering to favor the party in power is the objective, here’s one possible scenario:
Imagine — it’s not hard — Republican legislators want to install a Republican as state attorney in the 13th Judicial Circuit, where DeSantis suspended Warren.
Hillsborough County, which comprises the entire 13th Judicial Circuit, leans Democratic. The neighboring 12th Judicial Circuit consists of Manatee, DeSoto and Sarasota counties, all Republican strongholds. So if the 12th and 13th circuits were combined, a Republican candidate for state attorney would have a greatly enhanced shot at winning.
Warren suggested there are strong arguments against consolidation that have nothing to do with his personal ambitions.
“Government works best when it’s closest to the people and this is going in the opposite direction,” he said. “The closer people are to the communities they serve, the more accountability they have.”
“This is about concentrating power in Tallahassee, not doing what’s best for Floridians,” Warren said.
He expects nothing will deter legislators from drawing a new circuit map next year. “What the governor wants the governor gets and the Legislature is there as his accomplice, not as a separate and independent branch of government.”