The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday called for creating a sixth state appeals court and revamping boundaries, describing the potential changes as “milestone events” that have not occurred in decades.
Florida has five district courts of appeal, some of which hear cases from huge swaths of the state. The Supreme Court said that one of the key reasons for the proposed changes is a “serious underrepresentation” of appellate judges from the Jacksonville area.
The Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal hears cases from the 4th Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Duval, Clay and Nassau counties. The Supreme Court said only two of 15 judges on the appeals court are from the 4th Judicial Circuit — though the circuit makes up 37.5 percent of the population of the appellate district.
Under the proposal, the Jacksonville area would move into a revamped 5th District Court of Appeal, which is based in Daytona Beach. Other changes would ripple across Central Florida and Southwest Florida, with a new 6th District Court of Appeal stretching from Pasco County to DeSoto County and including cities such as St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota.
“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, but we conclude that any such internal disruption in the district courts associated with the creation of a sixth district court would be short-lived and would be outweighed by the benefit of enhanced public trust and confidence,” said the Supreme Court’s majority opinion fully shared by Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Jorge Labarga, Alan Lawson, Carlos Muniz and John Couriel.
Justice Jamie Grosshans concurred with the outcome but did not sign on to the majority opinion. Justice Ricky Polston dissented, disputing the conclusions about underrepresentation for the Jacksonville area and citing a court rule related to “public trust and confidence.”
“Jacksonville has outstanding lawyers and judges, and I have the upmost respect for them,” Polston wrote. “It is undisputable that there have been numerous well-qualified Jacksonville applicants to the First District, including making the short list, who were not selected in recent history or by different governors over the last 20 years. But it is the governor’s selection, not the inability to attract well-qualified applicants, that is relevant under the rule.”
The Supreme Court appointed a committee in May that evaluated issues such as revamping appellate districts. The committee, made up of judges and lawyers, issued a report in September.
State lawmakers would have to sign off on creating the sixth appeals court, with the Supreme Court also calling for adding six appellate judges. Wednesday’s majority opinion said such changes have not occurred since the creation of the 5th District Court of Appeal in 1979.
The opinion did not detail potential costs of the changes. Under the proposal:
— The 1st District Court of Appeal would continue to hear cases from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 8th and 14th judicial circuits. Those circuits stretch from Escambia County on the west to Baker County on the east and include cities such as Pensacola, Panama City, Tallahassee and Gainesville.
— The 2nd District Court of Appeal would hear cases from the 9th, 10th and 20th judicial circuits. Those circuits stretch from Orange County on the north to Collier County in Southwest Florida and include cities such as Orlando, Lakeland, Fort Myers and Naples. A key change is that Orange and Osceola counties would shift from the 5th District Court of Appeal to the 2nd District Court of Appeal.
— The 3rd District Court of Appeal would be unchanged, continuing to hear cases from the 11th and 16th judicial circuits, made up of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.
— The 4th District Court of Appeal would be unchanged, continuing to hear cases from the 15th, 17th and 19th judicial circuits. Those circuits stretch from Indian River County to Broward County and include cities such as West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.
— The 5th District Court of Appeal would hear cases from the 4th, 5th, 7th and 18th judicial circuits. Those circuits stretch from Nassau County on the north to Brevard County on the south and to Hernando County on the west. The circuits include cities such as Jacksonville, Daytona Beach, Melbourne and Ocala.
— The 6th District Court of Appeal would include the 6th, 12th and 13th Judicial circuits. Those circuits stretch from Pasco County to DeSoto County.