Keys can’t afford to lose any County Court judges

Don’t expect Keys officials to take lightly a recommendation from the Florida Supreme Court that Monroe County needs one fewer County Court judge.

In December, that’s what the Supreme Court said in a report called Certification of Need for Additional Judges. The report lays out where the seven justices believe judicial jurisdictions have too many or too few judges. For Monroe (the 16th Judicial Circuit), they say the county needs three, not the current four, County Court judges based on an assessment of the jurists’ workloads.

Since then, the Supreme Court has issued an addendum to its report, “giving note of intent to monitor whether decertification of a second Monroe County Court judgeship is warranted in 2018.” If the Legislature, which largely finances the courts, agrees with the initial report and the addendum, it would mean that two of the four County Court judgeships would be stripped.

“We are not at the stage of a proposed second decertification yet. The [Supreme Court’s] order just gave heads up that it was looking at additional judgeships for future decertifications in the next year including one in Monroe County,” County Attorney Bob Shillinger wrote in an email.

In a county more than 100 miles long, losing judges makes no sense. Our county officials, state representative and state senator must fight the decertification of any of our judges because ultimately, it would be those who use the courts who would be most hurt. The first judge slot to go if defunded by the Legislature would be that of Wayne Miller, whose term is the next one to expire, in 2018.

County judges are known for presiding over misdemeanor criminal cases. But they also handle divorces, foreclosures, landlord-tenant disputes, traffic cases, small claims and mediation, among other things.

Monroe’s judges are Miller, initially elected in 1989; Peary Fowler, elected in 2004; Ruth Becker, elected in 1990; and Sharon Hamilton, who replaced Reagan Ptomey on Jan. 3. Ptomey retired and Hamilton defeated an opponent in last year’s primary election.

Miller and Fowler work out of Key West, Becker out of Marathon and Hamilton out of Plantation Key.

If the Legislature follows the Supreme Court’s recommendation and defunds a Keys judge, it would mean one County Court judge (we also have four Circuit Court judges who handle felonies) in each geographic area of the Keys.

To take it further, if a second judgeship were defunded, it would mean that at a minimum, anyone with an issue being handled by County Court could face a minimum of 100 miles on the road getting to and from a proceeding, depending on where he or she lives.

The Supreme Court says of its recommendations, “The court does not take this step lightly; rather, we do so recognizing that we must remain consistent in our application of the workload methodology” under state law.

We hope the court also recognizes the unique geography of our county and the burden stripping judgeships would have on customers of the court. And we note that County Court judges earn $138,020 annually, which wouldn’t even be a drop of a drop in the bucket of Florida’s current $82 billion budget.

Our county and state officials must convince the Legislature, whose two-month session starts March 7, that the Keys do not have an over-abundant number of judges.

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