State attorney urges county commission to oppose plan to consolidate court circuits statewide
Bill Gladson speaks during a meeting of the Litter Task Force at Marion County Growth Services in Ocala, Fla. on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.
State Attorney Bill Gladson and Public Defender Mike Graves told the Marion County Commission on Tuesday that an idea under consideration to consolidate circuit courts in Florida would lead to a loss of local representation and resources.
The pushback comes after the Florida Supreme Court appointed a committee in June to evaluate the idea of combining judicial circuits across the state. The committee will submit its final report on Dec. 1.
“The stated purpose is to save money by having fewer circuits,” Gladson said. “I don’t think that’s accurate. I think all you would have would be fewer elected people.”
The Fifth Judicial Circuit is made up of Marion, Citrus, Hernando, Lake and Sumter counties. Approximately 1.3 million people live within this circuit, which geographically is nearly as large as the state of Connecticut, Gladson said.
“I think when government moves further from the people, and it’s not closer to the people, it becomes less effective. The larger the area, the more people to serve,” Gladson said.
Gladson and Graves urged the county commission to write a letter to the Supreme Court to strongly oppose the idea of consolidation. Both the State Attorney’s Office and the Marion County Bar Association have written opposition letters.
Consolidating circuits could potentially expand Marion County’s judicial circuit southwest toward Tampa, north toward Jacksonville or east toward Orlando. Merging this judicial circuit with any of these heavily populated areas would give less representation to people who live in Marion and the other counties within the Fifth Circuit, Gladson said.
“If a large circuit or if a large county like Orange County became part of the Fifth, I think all the elected people would come out of Orange County—judges, prosecutors and public defenders,” he said. “It’s such a huge area that they wouldn’t need to spend any time in Sumter or Citrus or Marion to win an election.”
There are 20 judicial circuits in Florida, each with an elected state attorney and public defender. The Fifth Circuit is one of the few where its population is proportionate with the judiciary, said MCBA President Tim McCourt.
“We represent 5% of the judicial circuits, and we represent 5.5% percent of the (state) population,” McCourt said. “If anything, we probably could use more state attorneys. We probably need to have more than 20 judicial circuits. We could probably use more state attorneys and more public defenders.”
Consolidation could not only have potentially negative impacts for the judicial system and residents but for Marion County itself, said Commissioner Kathy Bryant.
“State Attorney Gladson hit on a very important thing for us, which is integrating computer systems and IT. That is extremely costly. And guess who gets to bear the burden of that? We do,” Bryant said.
While Gladson represents all five counties in the Fifth Circuit, he is based in Marion County, and having an elected representative from Marion is a luxury that consolidation could jeopardize, Bryant said.
“One of the most important parts of this is if they were to do that, we more than likely would never have another state attorney elected from Marion County again,” she said. “That’s a huge problem.”