The Florida Supreme Court wants to create a new appeals court anchored in the Tampa Bay region as part of a proposed series of changes to the state’s appellate districts.
The recommendations, detailed in a high court opinion released in late November, would realign the state’s appellate court boundaries, with Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties grouped with the Sarasota region in a new 6th District Court of Appeal.
The plan also would rehash the appellate boundaries elsewhere, placing the cities of Jacksonville and Orlando into new districts. The report also recommended that the state add a total of six new appellate judges, bringing the statewide total to 70.
Judges of the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which encompasses 14 southeast Florida counties, likely would be the most impacted by the changes. Judges on that court wouldn’t comment, but there are voices of opposition.
Supreme Court Justice Ricky Polston, in the sole dissent from the majority, wrote that the proposed changes lacked support from the appellate courts, would be expensive and would cause significant disruption to the state’s judiciary.
The plan, Polston wrote, “is analogous to rebuilding a ship for what should be swapping out a couple of deck chairs at most.”
The high court’s majority opinion drew from a report by a committee of 15 judges and lawyers from throughout Florida who convened earlier this year to assess the need for changes to the state’s five appellate courts. The committee’s report reasoned that the creation of a 6th appellate court would “promote public trust and confidence.” The report offered several proposed plans to realign the state’s appellate districts, ultimately favoring a model that would carve a new court out of the existing 2nd District Court of Appeal.
The 2nd District is technically based in Lakeland but its 16 judges mostly hail from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Most of the more than 5,000 cases the court handles each year arise from the Tampa Bay region.
Judges on the court have for the last five years worked exclusively out of leased space in the downtown Tampa campus of Stetson University College of Law after their longtime Lakeland courthouse became run-down and uninhabitable.
The need for a new courthouse has been a source of long-standing political tension.
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A 2016 study commission by the legislature recommended a new building in either Tampa or St. Petersburg, with costs estimated between $32 to $40 million.
Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, helped secure $50 million for the creation of a new courthouse in the state’s last legislative session, with conditions that it be based in Pinellas County and named after the late Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe.
Those plans remain, Sprowls said this week.
“It’s a much bigger proposal than just our corner of the world,” Sprowls said of the court’s opinion. “We will consider the whole proposal in its entirety in the next legislative session.”
The legislature would have to change state law, which would have to be approved by the governor, before the new boundaries and judicial seats would take effect.
State Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, has advocated for keeping the court anchored to Polk County. Her husband was appointed as a judge of the 2nd District last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
This week, Stargel said she favors the Supreme Court’s recommendation.
“Generally, I have no opposition to what they’ve proposed,” Stargel said. “I think it’s a better alignment of where the population centers are.”
If enacted, Polk County would remain in the 2nd District’s jurisdiction, while the boundaries would rope in the Orlando region. The number of 2nd District judges would be reduced to 10. The new 6th District would have 13 judges.
The committee report included minority comments from four appellate judges and a public defender, who favored keeping the appellate districts as they are. The state’s appeals courts are not impaired in their ability to handle cases, they wrote.
In his dissent, Justice Polston wrote that the chief judges for the state’s five appeals courts all oppose the proposal.
The creation of new appellate-level judicial seats was not something any of the appeals courts requested, Polston wrote.
The majority opinion asserts that the new boundaries would remedy what it said was the underrepresentation of judges from the Jacksonville area in the state’s appeals court. The opinion acknowledged that enacting the changes would likely create disruption in the judiciary.
“The creation of a new district court, like any other significant change in the judicial system, would be accompanied by some degree of internal disruption,” the majority wrote, “but we conclude that any such internal disruption in the district courts associated with the creation of a 6th district court would be short-lived and would be outweighed by the benefit of enhanced public trust and confidence.”