ORANGE COUNTY— A bill is working its way through the Florida Legislature that would add judgeships to the 9th Judicial Circuit while removing them from other circuits.

The bill, SB 1396, was introduced as a way to solve shortages in judgeships for counties that have been overtaxed with cases recently. This change in the number of positions is certified on annually to the Legislature, stating whether their judicial needs have increased or decreased.

According to 9th Circuit Chief Judge Frederick Lauten, the last time there was an expansion in the branch workforce was 2006, leaving no additions in the past 12 years.

"Last year, in the certification plan the court asked for the entire state of Florida four new circuit judges," Lauten told Florida Record. "We, under the methodology, would have received three of those four, but we got none."

Lauten said the failure to increase the judiciary was consistent with the Legislature's actions over the past 10 years but didn't negate the fact that the 9th Judicial Circuit was in need of more help.

"This year, the court sent its opinion over, and it requested two new circuit judges in the state, both of whom would go to the 9th Circuit," Lauten said. 

But the addition of two new judges was not the only opinion, as the court also recommended the decertification of 12 county judges. 

"Well, that's not fair," Lauten said. "And that was based on our weighted case management methodology, which includes filings which are down and have been down statewide for a while."

A number of counties are concerned with the potential decrease in judgeships, as it would lead to a burden for the judges of those counties. 

“The 6th Circuit is very concerned about the possibility judicial positions could be eliminated,” Anthony Rondolino, chief judge of the 6th Judicial Circuit, told Florida Record. “Our circuit has formally requested additional judges and feels the data suggesting any reduction here is inaccurate. The chief judges all over the state are seeing the complexity of cases increase and, even where caseloads are declining, the work is greater. Specialty courts, such as drug courts, veterans courts, domestic violence courts and mental health courts, are very labor-intensive and require much greater resources than traditional judicial proceedings in the past.”

Dan Gerber at Rumberger Kirk & Caldwell in Orlando said there have been increases in the workloads of judges, leading to a much-needed reassessment of judgeships. 

"Judicial workload continues to increase in many counties with substantial growth, and this plan meets the population growth to provide the court with manageable caseloads," Gerber told Florida Record.

Lauten said measures have been taken to ensure the workload is being considered at length, rather than assuming a case is a case in a strict counting approach; foreclosures require much less judicial labor than a medical malpractice case does, leaving the methodology of counting cases unfair in terms of the work required.

"Our methodology evolved to this weighted case management where we are able, with the assistance of the National Center for State Courts, to weight filings more appropriately when we make our requests for our expansion of the workforce," Lauten said.

This year, the 9th Judicial Circuit was the only one in the state to qualify for an expansion of the circuit court bench. Hillsborough qualified for two new county judges, leaving other counties to lose some judges, but measures are being taken that would allow more counties to gain judges and eliminate the need to decertify others.

"This year, the Legislature looked at the jurisdictional amount to file a case in county civil, which is $15,000, and said, 'That amount has not changed for a long time,' and entertained, 'Maybe we should raise the jurisdictional amount.'" Lauten said. "And the Senate proposed to $100,000 and the House to $50,000, so that now a case that involves damages of $50,000 or less would go to county civil, whereas, currently, it has to be $15,000 or less."

This proposal, if accepted, would distribute some of the work from the circuit to the county.

Since it was first written, SB 1396 has been amended and could add two new county judges in Hillsborough, and one each in Citrus, Flagler and Columbia.

Lauten said that his circuit's needs remain the same as they were prior to the bill's amendments or proposed jurisdictional changes. 

"I'm hopeful that we'll get two new circuit judges from the Legislature this year," Lauten said. 

On Jan. 1, Lauten closed one of the 9th Circuit's business divisions due to the overtaxed family courts division, which was unable to handle the work it had. 

"I took a judge out of the business court division that handled complex commercial litigation and moved them over," Lauten said. 

This decision was hard to make, as Lauten sat the division and was proud to be the first circuit to have a business court. But Lauten plans to return a judge to the business court if the 9th Circuit receives two judgeships.

Though the decision has yet to be made, the 9th Circuit will likely add a judge to civil, family or probate; there is still not a clear idea of who may be considered for the new positions. 

"Until the governor declares a vacancy, it's hard to know which lawyers or judges might apply for vacancies, or if these are filled by election, the election would be many years off, so it's impossible to speculate," Gerber said. 

"We're a growing jurisdiction, and the other phenomena we have is the population base," Lauten said. "We have 60 million visitors, and then we also have the Puerto Rico incident."

While there have been concerns about the cost that would come with additional judgeships, the $1.4 million price tag would include four judges' salaries, as well as their judicial assistants.

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