Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news from Florida for working families since 2007


Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Says “No” to Circuit Court Consolidation

Map of Florida Circuit Courts

The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers represents more than 1,300 attorneys who practice every day in every circuit in Florida. Our members are critical players in the criminal legal system, from public defenders to conflict counsel, to private attorneys toiling daily in the courts of Florida to protect the rights of the accused.

Circuit consolidation would have harmful, if not disastrous, effects on the operations of the criminal courts.

FACDL leadership and members have spoken with judges, attorneys, clerks, and many others within the system. None have offered reasons to consolidate circuits. FACDL has not read or heard of support for consolidation from either civil or criminal practitioners.

Consolidation would have a deleterious effect on justice in Florida.

Each Circuit Has a Unique Personality

The judicial circuits are as varied and diverse as Florida's geography and its citizens' makeup. Large and small, metropolitan and rural, blue collar and white, agricultural and urban, the circuits serve their varied representations of our state. As the circuits have evolved, policies and procedures have evolved to suit each of their needs.

That diversity is a good thing.

Depending on the demographics of the circuit, the courts operate within the rules in a way that best suits their needs. The most important aspect is consistency within a circuit. When the players within the system know what to expect, everything runs more smoothly, moving cases through to resolutions expeditiously. This “personality” of a circuit represents the electorate the circuit serves.

By contrast, consolidation would create large schizophrenic circuits that do not respect the needs and desires of the largest portion of the citizenry. We can easily envision that the practices of an expanded circuit would not reflect the values of many residents within it. Merging a rural agricultural area into a mega circuit with a coastal neighbor, for instance, would create a schism that would be impossible to bridge.

Stakeholders Within a Circuit Have Critical Relationships

Although we operate within an adversarial system, those serving in it form important professional relationships that allow it to function. Prosecutors and law enforcement work closely. Public defenders work intimately with their counterpart prosecutors, and both sides spend countless hours with the circuit's judiciary. Critical to the courts, court administration must coordinate throughout the circuit, working with judges, lawyers, and clerks.

These are not relationships formed overnight or without negotiation and forethought. Enlarging circuits, which by all accounts are working well, would disrupt or sever many of those relationships. That would lead to inefficiencies and ineffectiveness.

Consolidation Would Undermine Trust in the System

Today’s circuits consist of large urban circuits, especially in the southern coastal parts of the state, and less populated, more disparate circuits covering large geographical areas. Consolidating the large urban circuits seems impractical. Consolidating more rural circuits with larger population centers would be disruptive to disastrous.

Some circuits already stretch across six or more counties requiring judges and lawyers to travel far from home to administer justice. Enlarging those distances would waste both time and money through increased travel.

The sense of detachment consolidation would create among system participants would be its worst effect. When the seat of power is far from home, citizens have less reason to trust those making decisions for them, undermining credibility. It also would create a lack of accountability because it would be more difficult for circuit leadership to engage with citizens.

Those in less populated counties already suffer from a lack of representation among judges elected circuit-wide. Combining circuits would center even more power in the population centers, ensuring even less representation for rural areas among the judiciary.

Technological Considerations

Working within the circuits can be challenging when moving between counties because not all clerks and courts have the same practices. Although that problem has been largely remedied over the last decade, there still are challenges. However, merging circuits would create a range of technological difficulties that would disrupt proceedings for months, if not longer.

The place this would play out is the functioning of the state attorney and public defender offices. Those offices across the state do not all use the same system. Integrating systems from different circuits would take manpower that does not exist, be needlessly expensive, and create inefficiencies that would linger for years. While consolidation is supposed to improve efficiencies, it would have a deleterious effect.

Compressed Timeline

Even if it could be shown that consolidation might be an avenue worth pursuing, the compressed timeline the Supreme Court committee is working under is unrealistic. The ramifications of a radical change in circuit makeup would be so far-reaching that it cannot possibly be examined in a matter of months. The considerations include technology, finances, staffing, logistics, and others not yet contemplated.

Such a decision should be data-driven in our tech age, and the committee charged with the study should consider years' worth of data to make a valid assessment. The panel also must consider the effects of the pandemic on the data compiled when the courts were thrown into upheaval and had to adjust on the fly. Information from 2020 to 2022 may not be valid in making this decision.


Consolidation of circuits equates to consolidation of power. It is a truism that the best government is a government closest to the people governed. Some circuits are so far-flung that traveling from one end to the other is daunting for many and impractical for most. Smaller circuits provide greater accountability on behalf of judicial and executive leaders.

It cannot be disputed that the people who know the judicial system best are those who work in it every day. We have not read, heard, or seen any data or even anecdotal evidence that consolidation is needed or desired.

Little in our society these days wins universal agreement. Yet the unity against circuit consolidation among legal system members is stunning— judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and clerks have spoken out against consolidation.

Luke Newman is the president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He is one of fewer than 70 Florida attorneys board certified by the Florida Bar in criminal appeals.

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