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16th district court key west

Gotta a court date? You might need to plan a trip to Miami

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

09/02/2023

These days it’s darn near impossible to find something Floridians agree on. We shed our collaborative shades of purple back around the time of hanging chads and we’ve filled closets with red or blue since. Note the “or” because we don’t do both in 2023.

But somewhere just after June 2023 turned into July 2023, Florida found one thing it could agree upon: Opposition to consolidating its 20 state judicial district trial courts into fewer courthouses, lawyers, prosecutors, public defenders and support staff. Oh, yeah, and we 16th District Court folks in Monroe County can (1) drive to Miami for court dates; and (2) kiss farewell ever again to electing prosecutors, defenders or judges who actually live next door.

In the past three months opposition has grown from a handful of raised eyebrows to a full-on howl from an alliance of folks who might not have given each other the political time of day in, say, May.

I’m often inclined to support regional collaboration, especially for things like economic development. But, Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey, consolidating Monroe County’s 16th Judicial District Court with Miami-Dade’s massive 11th District? That. Dog. Don’t. Hunt, my friends. I need to travel to Miami for a court date like I need ketchup on hogfish.

Key West Island News

16th District Court | How did we get here?

If you’ve been hurricane prepping or otherwise occupied the past few weeks, here’s a brief recap: On June 15, Florida House Speaker Paul Renner asked the state Supreme Court to consider consolidating the state’s 20 district courts in an effort to save some bucks and make things more “efficient.”

The Supreme Court said, “Sure, but we’re not making a decision on the merits one way or the other without a committee” and thus a committee was formed. The committee has been crafting surveys, taking notes and otherwise committee-ing over the past several weeks, culminating in an Aug. 25 virtual and in-person meeting that pretty much ripped asunder any idea that there was support for said consolidation anywhere in the state. I mean no one — no one — spoke in favor.

The committee’s obtusely repetitive surveys, which are heavily weighted toward consolidation, deadlined on Sept. 1, so you’re too late for adding your two cents that way. You can still send your “what were you thinking” notes to the committee, which next meets on Sept. 15, to consider the survey results and public input. The state supremes have told the committee to get back to them with recommendations on Dec. 1, just in time for the next legislative season. Then the uppity legislature gets to figure out what to do.

Look, I’m all for efficiency. Who wouldn’t be? But this move is a solution in search of a problem orchestrated by one of the governor’s political cronies via a state Supreme Court that’s cozily comfortable with the DeSantis way of doing things, resulting in significantly diminished local control while escalating the centralized, state-level mandates that have all but eliminated Florida’s historic home rule history.

When prosecutors and public defenders, lawyers and judges, elected officials and red voters and blue voters are all shouting, “Don’t do this!” there can be no doubt this whole consolidation idea is a political pipe dream.

The Monroe County Board of Commissioners will go on record in September opposing the consolidation of the 16th Judicial District into the sprawling maw of Miami-Dade’s 11th. Both Public Defender Robert Lockwood and State Attorney Dennis Ward are on record opposing the consolidation. Monroe County Mayor and former Key West Mayor Craig Cates made his opposition clear in a letter to Speaker Renner:

“A look at the voter registration numbers dispels any argument that Monroe County voters will have a meaningful voice in electing local representation should the two circuits be consolidated,” said Cates. “Monroe County’s 50,762 registered voters comprise only 3.3% of a combined electorate of 1,532,614 for a consolidated Judicial Circuit due to Miami-Dade’s 1,481,852 registered voters.”

I can imagine the laughter in an overcrowded Miami courtroom when Monroe County wants to prosecute an over-the-limit lobster violation. And if you’re an upstanding citizen who never touched the court system, just wait until you’re making multiple 160-mile trips to Miami (plus lots of rescheduling) to probate your partner’s estate, struggling with a nasty landlord or tenant or answering a jury duty summons.

Oh, and by the way: So far, there’s zilch evidence that consolidation would or could improve our courts, make them more efficient or save money. None. Why? Because this isn’t about actually making a better court system. It’s all about smashing local control.

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