Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been slowly taking over the mechanisms of governance in the state by swapping out officials he doesn’t like — even if they were elected by voters — and replacing them with people who will bend to his will.
Lately, DeSantis has set his sights on the justice system. Earlier this month, he removed an elected prosecutor from office over a political disagreement — the second he has taken out. State Attorney for Orange-Osceola counties Monique Worrell, the governor claimed, hadn’t pursued the charges he wanted. A year earlier, he suspended former Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, who had said he wouldn’t criminally charge people who sought abortion care under Florida’s latest abortion ban.
Now, Florida is opening a new front in the battle between state politicians and elected stewards of the law, taking the first steps to launch what could become an ideological gerrymandering of the justice system. In Florida, 20 circuit courts serve two main purposes: as regional courts for certain types of cases, as well as appeals courts for the smaller county court systems. DeSantis’s allies are seeking to remake those circuit districts.
On June 30, the Florida Supreme Court, which oversees the circuit courts, created a new commission to review the judicial circuits. The commission was created after a request from Republican state House Speaker Paul Renner, who had written a June 15 letter to the court asking that it review judicial circuits to account for recent demographic shifts and consider consolidating them.
“This is judicial gerrymandering, plain and simple,” said Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani. Eskamani represents the district where Worrell was elected and is running for reelection next year.
“The intent is to create these larger circuits that water down the vote of the more progressive areas.”
“If you consolidate the circuits, Monique Worrell will not be reelected. And that’s a 100 percent what their plan is,” Eskamani said. “The intent is to create these larger circuits that water down the vote of the more progressive areas.”
The commission launched against the backdrop of a national effort to limit or void the authority of elected prosecutors in more than 15 states. Its commission’s decisions could impact judges and elected state attorneys, public defenders, and circuit clerks. Authorized by a Supreme Court dominated by DeSantis appointees and Federalist Society members, the commission creates a new way for the DeSantis administration to remove elected officials it might disagree with.
Comparing DeSantis’s push to efforts in other states to restrict the authority of prosecutors, Eskamani said, “This is out of that same exact playbook.”
Redrawing Judiciary Districts
If the commission’s review process results in redrawn maps, circuit judges could also face challenges to their reelection efforts, said Neil Skene, a legal historian who wrote a history of the Florida Supreme Court.
Skene said that “the likely approach will be to add one or more ‘red’ counties to the major ‘blue’ counties like Hillsborough and Orange and perhaps Jacksonville and Tallahassee.”
The move by the court to review judicial circuits comes just over a year after state lawmakers approved salary increases for circuit court judges and state Supreme Court justices, budgeting $50 million for the newly created Sixth District Court of Appeal.
“I do something nice for you, and you might do something nice for me one day. That’s what happens.”
The salary bumps included in the package are raising a question about the Supreme Court’s motives for creating the commission. “There is something of a tradition where the legislature and the court system engage in this sort of — I won’t call it an exchange of favors, but in appreciation for one thing, they will sort of identify a thing that will be important to the other and do it,” he said. “I do something nice for you, and you might do something nice for me one day. That’s what happens.”
The commission plans to hold seven meetings, including two public hearings, and expects to submit a final report by December 1 on whether or not there is a need to consolidate judicial circuits. The commission has held two meetings since July, and its first public hearing is scheduled Friday at the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando.
The state Supreme Court will receive the committee’s findings and could include any nonbinding recommendation in its annual certification opinion, which is submitted to the legislature. “The legislature regularly exercises its authority to set and fund judge positions in ways that differ from the Supreme Court’s opinion,” court spokesperson Paul Flemming told The Intercept.
During the commission’s first meeting in July, Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz said there was no preconceived outcome; he encouraged commission members to keep an open mind throughout the process.
Throughout July and August, at least 25 state attorneys and judges submitted feedback to the commission. The Florida Bar sent a survey to members on August 10 asking for feedback on existing circuits. Several raised concerns with the idea of consolidating districts and said such changes could undermine community ties and public trust.
“We are proud of our communities and choose to live in small towns for a reason,” wrote Third Judicial Circuit State Attorney John Durrett. “To tether or consume us within another Circuit, headquartered within an urban center hundreds of miles away, would only serve to create a sense of detachment and neglect,” he said. “Consolidation would not develop trust. It would undermine it.”
“I believe that re-aligning or consolidating Florida’s judicial circuits would be very disruptive to our law enforcement and our criminal justice systems,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle wrote. “Like education, law enforcement is, and should be, local and reflect community values; judicial circuit consolidation would serve neither of those two ideals.”
Two weeks passed between when Renner, the Republican House speaker, first sent his letter to the court and when Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz issued the order to create the commission. The process was atypically swift.
Renner sent the letter after the state legislative session ended. There had not been a broader discussion about circuits during the session, said Eskamani, the Democratic representative, and the speed of the commission’s creation was unusual.
Something like Renner’s letter or the court’s proposal often comes at the end of a process, not the beginning, Skene said.
“You’re not gonna get an immediate response to a ridiculously obscure proposal like restructuring the court system. That just has no political appeal. But what does have political appeal: if we redraw these lines in a way that gets more Republicans and fewer Democrats elected,” he said. “Having somebody see the political opportunity in a relatively routine governance issue always helps move things very quickly.”
The speed at which the court moved to create the commission after Renner sent his letter undermines the idea of three branches of government serving as checks on each other, Eskamani said. “To see that letter and also just how fast things moved, clearly there’s some sort of coordination here,” she said. “The commission was formed incredibly fast. They’ve already convened and now they’re coming to Orlando.”
In response to questions about the timing of the commission’s creation, Flemming, the court spokesperson, said Muñiz’s administrative order spoke for itself. “Such an assessment is contemplated in the Court’s rules, where an annual assessment is allowed, as specified in the administrative order,” Flemming said. He added that the timing of the committee’s work is directed in part by the early start of the 2024 legislative session, which begins during January in even-numbered years.
In a statement to The Intercept, Renner cited Florida’s population growth since the last review in 1969 and the desire to cut costs through consolidation. “This request for review is a responsible, first step to understanding whether we can optimize our court system to best serve Floridians in the 21st Century,” Renner said. (DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment.)
“The most clear, obvious result of this is going to be circuits that are not going to elect Democratic public defenders, or Democratic state attorneys, or Democratic anyone.”
For judges, a seat on the circuit courts can be seen as an audition for higher appointment by the governor, Skene said. “Now it’s much more a patronage-driven process,” he said. “This is another step in the partisan-izing of the court system. That’s the big concern. And obviously, what you want is judges who are not gonna rule based on whether they like your politics.”
DeSantis has already reshaped the court system by appointing ideological allies, Eskamani said, and the commission could create opportunities for him to expand that network. “We already see this erosion of our judicial system based on the lack of merit-based decision-making. And then this, on top of it — it’s purely political.”
“The most clear, obvious result of this is going to be circuits that are not going to elect Democratic public defenders, or Democratic state attorneys, or Democratic anyone,” Eskamani said. “It’s absolutely a tool to weaken the power of voters.”