PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — A committee, appointed by the Florida Supreme Court, is deciding if the state’s judicial circuit boundaries should be redrawn.
Florida’s House Speaker floated the idea with the court in June, but some questioned need for the change and the motives behind it.
This special report will explain why many say any change will be bad for the 14th Judicial Circuit.
Florida’s first 7 judicial circuits were created by the 1868 senate constitution.
As the state’s population grew, the legislature amended it to add more circuits.
In 1937 the legislature expanded to 15 circuits, including the 14th, made up of Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington Counties.
The last expansion took place in 1973 when the legislature created the current 20 circuits.
Now, 50 years later, there is a proposal to consolidate some of the circuits.
“June 15th of this year,” Senator Jay Trumbull explains. “The Speaker of the Florida House, Paul Renner. sent a letter to the Supreme Court asking for some if there was a way to create some efficiencies as it relates to the circuit courts across the state.”
In his letter, Speaker Renner notes that there have been ‘significant population and demographic changes’ in the past 50 years, and that consolidating circuits ‘might generate substantial cost through greater efficiency and uniformity in the judicial process.’
After receiving Renner’s letter, The Supreme Court appointed a committee to consider the consolidation proposal.
No one from our area is on that committee.
During the first meeting last month, committee members said they had no preconceived ideas or notions about the outcome.
But some critics believe any consolidation is politically motivated.
“Well, the governor and the speaker of the House has hatched this idea to gerrymander the judicial circuit,” Defense Attorney Waylon Graham said.
Graham chairs the circuit’s judicial qualifications committee, where the consolidation proposal is a hot topic.
“What I think they’re attempting to do is take more red voters or Republicans and get them into some of these blue circuits that are more Democrat to change the dynamics,” Graham continues. “And to do that, they’ve got to realign the boundaries. And one of the bright ideas that they come up with is they’re going to possibly take our circuit, Tom, and put it over in the Tallahassee Circuit or in the Pensacola Circuit. And our little circuit would cease to exist.”
Not many are as blunt as Graham with their criticism.
But everyone seems to agree the result of consolidating the 14th circuit into the 1st or 2nd is a bad idea.
“If our circuit is consolidated and or absorbed into the one in Tallahassee or Pensacola, it will be a threat to public safety and our way of life,” State Attorney Larry Basford said.
“It could make sense in other areas of the state,” Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford explained. “I’m not doubting that. But it does not make sense for the 14th Judicial Circuit.”
Why doesn’t it make sense?
Most everyone points to several issues, the most important being access and representation.
“If our circuit were absorbed by one of the neighboring circuits, either to the east, Tallahassee or to the west, Pensacola,” Basford continues. “That would mean that our local citizens would no longer elect a local state attorney who lives and works in the area or a local public defender or their circuit judges. We simply do not have sufficient votes to outvote those metropolitan areas.”
“Because right now, our circuit is comprised of local circuit judge, people that grew up in our little community right here,” Basford says. “That could go away real quick because a power base is going to shift and these individuals are going to have to run in Tallahassee and Pensacola, where it’s going to be very difficult to win when you’re from little old Bay County or Chipley or Port St. Joe, or somewhere like that.”
And why is that important?
“We’ve spent decades working with our local law enforcement agencies to build up relationships and protocols to keep our citizens safe,” Basford says. “This would disrupt those relationships, and it would cause chaos not only for the law enforcement agencies, but the other agencies, that are dependent on the 14th Circuit boundaries.”
Agencies like the Department of Juvenile Justice, Children and Family Services, the Medical Examiner, Probation Services, and more.
“If we lose our ability to do this ourselves, we’re going to wind up with judges from far away areas that we don’t know this unfamiliar with our community on, unfamiliar with our law enforcement,” Graham says. “And that will make it all more difficult to properly function. And then the other problem is the same thing goes for the state attorney. We wind up some guy from Pensacola, Tallahassee, unfamiliar with our particular area.”
“Public trust and confidence is highest in government when it is kept closest to the people,” Basford finished.