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Idea to merge Florida judicial circuits draws opposition, gerrymandering claims

Prosecutors, judges and public defenders say the change would disrupt how the courts function.
 
A picture of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, far right, hangs on the wall in the Pat Collier Frank Courts Building in Tampa on Aug. 4, 2022, the day Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he had removed Warren and replaced him with County Judge Susan Lopez. A review under way to decide whether to consolidate judicial circuits has drawn criticism from some who believe the move is motivated by a desire to gerrymander circuits to favor Republican candidates.
A picture of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, far right, hangs on the wall in the Pat Collier Frank Courts Building in Tampa on Aug. 4, 2022, the day Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he had removed Warren and replaced him with County Judge Susan Lopez. A review under way to decide whether to consolidate judicial circuits has drawn criticism from some who believe the move is motivated by a desire to gerrymander circuits to favor Republican candidates. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 22, 2023|Updated Aug. 23, 2023

A proposal by a Republican lawmaker to consolidate some judicial circuits in Florida could upend decades-old jurisdiction boundaries across the state — a move that critics say is designed to stack the deck with more conservative prosecutors.

House Speaker Paul Renner in June asked the Florida Supreme Court to consider shrinking the number of circuits, which he said could save money and make the system more efficient. The court appointed a committee to make a recommendation in December. The Legislature, controlled by a Republican supermajority, will then decide.

State Rep. Michele Rayner, a Democrat and attorney whose district includes portions of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, called consolidation “purely politically motivated.”

“This is really more about the governor wanting to ensure that Democratic or progressive prosecutors are not elected,” Rayner said. “We’ve already seen that he has removed Andrew Warren and Monique Worrell, and so I think that this is a bigger play.”

Of Florida’s 20 state attorneys, six were Democrats and 14 were Republicans before Gov. Ron DeSantis removed State Attorney Warren in Hillsborough County last year and Worrell in Orlando on Aug. 9. Both are Democrats, and members of their party fear that shrinking the number of districts will end up in a redrawn map that will further favor Republicans.

But many stakeholders across the state and here in Tampa Bay are opposed to the idea for different reasons — and that includes Republicans who would otherwise support their party and governor’s agenda.

Prosecutors, public defenders, private attorneys and judges cite concerns such as a loss of local control over the courts system, longer trips to courthouses and huge logistical hurdles.

Bipartisan concerns

In a June 15 letter to Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz, Renner noted that the state has had the same 20 judicial circuits since 1969 and that their populations vary widely, from less than 100,000 people in the circuit that includes Monroe County to roughly 2.7 million people in the circuit that includes Miami.

“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, adding that “improved economies of scale in the judiciary’s back-office operations” would lead to cost savings.

Muñiz in an order later that month said the idea “deserves thoughtful consideration and careful study.” He formed a 14-member committee composed of judges, attorneys and other officials from circuits across the state. The chairperson is Jonathan Gerber, a judge for the West Palm Beach-based 4th District Court of Appeal.

Muñiz asked the committee to query chief judges, other court officials and the public before submitting recommendations by Dec. 1. The committee has held two meetings. A third is set for Friday in Orlando. The meeting will be webcast and the agenda includes time for public comment.

In an emailed statement to the Times, Renner noted that the state’s population has tripled and shifted geographically since the circuits were last reviewed in 1969. Renner said cost savings from consolidation could be used to increase wages and resources for court personnel and the offices of prosecutors and public defenders.

“This request for review is a responsible, first step to understanding whether we can optimize our court system to best serve Floridians in the 21st Century,” Renner said.

The statement did not address suspicions about gerrymandering or concerns raised by prosecutors, public defenders, judges and others.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

A map from Florida's Office of the State Courts Administrator shows the state's 20 judicial circuits that have been in place since 1969.
A map from Florida's Office of the State Courts Administrator shows the state's 20 judicial circuits that have been in place since 1969. [ Office of the State Courts Administrator ]

Eighteen of the state’s 20 prosecutors have submitted letters to the committee. None said they supported the idea. Several voiced opposition.

In the Tampa Bay area, Hillsborough County makes up the entirety of the 13th Circuit and Pinellas and Pasco counties comprise the 6th Circuit.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, a Republican, wrote a letter to the committee describing his circuit as a “well oiled machine” that doesn’t need change.

DeSantis appointed Bartlett as the 6th Circuit’s interim top prosecutor in 2021 after the death of Bartlett’s predecessor, Bernie McCabe. Bartlett was elected to serve the rest of McCabe’s term last year after he ran a tough-on-crime platform.

“If anything, they should be breaking up some of these other circuits that are real, real large and spread them out and create a new circuit,” Bartlett said in an interview.

Two state attorneys did not write letters: Melissa Nelson of Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, who is serving on the committee; and Susan Lopez, the former Hillsborough prosecutor and county judge whom DeSantis picked to replace Warren. Lopez has announced that she will run for the seat in 2024.

Instead of a signed letter, Lopez’s office submitted a one-page sheet with a few sentences accompanying a map of the 13th Circuit. The Times asked Lopez what she thought of the idea of consolidation.

“It is always a good idea to assess what is happening in our state, and that is what this committee is doing,” Lopez said.

“It is always a good idea to assess what is happening in our state, and that is what this committee is doing,” appointed Hillsborough State Attorney Susan Lopez said of a panel considering a proposal to consolidate judicial circuits in Florida.
“It is always a good idea to assess what is happening in our state, and that is what this committee is doing,” appointed Hillsborough State Attorney Susan Lopez said of a panel considering a proposal to consolidate judicial circuits in Florida. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Both Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt and Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Sara Mollo declined to comment, referring Times reporters to the Florida Public Defender Association. Holt is the association’s secretary.

In a letter dated Aug. 11, the association’s board wrote that it is “gravely concerned that a rushed effort to determine if consolidation of circuits is warranted could lead to massive delays and disruption” in the system.

“If our smaller multi-county circuits were consolidated into large ones, their uniqueness would be diluted, their voices drowned out by the din of the larger urban circuits,” the letter says. “Many citizens would lose faith in their representation in our judicial process as a result.”

Some Hillsborough County judges have also shared concerns.

County Judge Frances M. Perrone, who is the administrative judge for the county’s civil division, sent the committee a letter co-signed by four of her colleagues. It cited a variety of potential problems, including longer travel times to courthouses and the effect on judicial elections that could see circuit judge candidates in smaller counties placed at a disadvantage against “a Goliath opponent” from a larger county.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Sabella, the 13th Circuit's chief judge, said he hasn't heard of anyone locally who supports the idea of consolidating judicial circuits.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Sabella, the 13th Circuit's chief judge, said he hasn't heard of anyone locally who supports the idea of consolidating judicial circuits. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Hillsborough Judge Christopher Sabella, the 13th Circuit’s chief judge, said he hasn’t heard of anyone locally who is in favor of consolidating circuits.

“Hillsborough is unique,” he said. “We are a very populated county. So I just don’t see how consolidation will create any enhancements to effectiveness or efficiency for the 13th Circuit.”

Political impact

None of the official correspondence to the committee posted online has raised the prospect of gerrymandering, but some others have, including both of the state attorneys DeSantis removed.

Last month, Warren on social media went further, calling consolidation “another nail in democracy’s coffin.”

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” Worrell, the Orange-Osceola state attorney, said in her own social media post.

Soon after, on Aug. 9, DeSantis suspended Worrell, claiming “neglect of duty and incompetence.” The governor replaced her with Orlando Judge Andrew Bain, whom DeSantis had appointed to the bench in 2020. Worrell has vowed to run for reelection next year.

Warren is awaiting an appellate court decision on his removal but has not ruled out running next year. In a phone interview, he called the consolidation proposal “a partisan power grab.”

Suspended Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren called the idea to consolidate judicial circuits a "partisan power grab."
Suspended Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren called the idea to consolidate judicial circuits a "partisan power grab." [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Neil Skene, a Florida author and legal historian, said “there has not been a line-drawing episode in Florida in the last 100 years that has not had a significant political dynamic to it.”

“Particularly in the current, highly partisan environment, once you start messing around with boundaries, you’re inevitably going to mess around with them in a way that increases the political advantage for the dominant party,” Skene said.

Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida, said it wouldn’t be difficult, at least on paper, to change the political leanings of the 13th Circuit by combining Hillsborough with, say, Polk or Manatee counties, both of which DeSantis won by wide margins.

The Legislature having the final determination raises concerns about separation of powers and political independence, Paulson said.

“That just opens a whole can of worms where the Legislature’s going to turn their eyes toward the governor’s mansion and say, ‘What would you like?’” Paulson said.

Rep. Dianne Hart, a Tampa Democrat, said she’s also convinced part of the goal is to gerrymander circuits. Hart said she believes the consolidation would reduce some citizens’ access to the court system, delay cases and have a disproportionate effect on people of color.

She noted that the Legislature could make changes in the January session.

”I can guarantee you they’re working right now trying to determine how do they make this happen,” Hart said.

The Times asked Lopez to comment on concerns that the push for consolidation is driven by a desire to benefit Republican candidates, including her.

“People will say all kinds of things positive and negative,” Lopez said. “It is the role of the prosecutor to assess the facts. We would encourage people to read the assessment committee’s report in December and reach out to the committee directly with their thoughts and feelings regarding the outcome.”

Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated 4th District Court of Appeal Judge Jonathan Gerber’s name and title due to a reporting error.