Proposal to Reshape Appeals Court Districts Could Affect Efforts to Retain a Lakeland Headquarters

A new proposal to realign Florida’s appellate court districts could sway the decision on whether Lakeland remains the home of the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

The proposal would place Hillsborough, Pinellas and four other counties mostly along the Gulf coast in a new sixth appellate district.

Legislators have jockeyed for several years over whether to keep the 2nd DCA headquarters in Lakeland or move it to Tampa or St. Petersburg, climaxing last April with a $50 million appropriation to build a new facility in St. Petersburg.

In May, Florida Chief Justice Charles Canady of Lakeland formed the District Court of Appeal Workload and Jurisdiction Assessment Committee to evaluate “the necessity for increasing, decreasing, or redefining the appellate districts.” Its 15 members were judges and attorneys, three from each of the five appeals districts.

The committee has recommended formation of a new 6th district consisting of six counties that are currently part of the Polk-based Second DCA. They include Pasco, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto. The realignment, the committee wrote, would “promote public trust and confidence.”

Figure 1 shows the current configuration of appelate court districts, and Figure 2 shows the proposed change.

The proposal was backed by a majority of the Supreme Court in an opinion released late last month.  Under the proposal, Orange and Osceola Counties would be removed from the Daytona-based 5th district and join the 2nd district.

The report recommends the addition of six appelate judges statewide, bringing the total to 70. The 2nd DCA would go from 16 judges to 10, and the new 6th district would get 13.

The plan will need the approval of the state Legislature and approval of the governor before taking affect.

State Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican whose husband, John Stargel, was appointed to the 2nd DCA last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis, told the Tampa Bay Times that she favors the proposed reshuffle.

“Generally, I have no opposition to what they’ve proposed,” Stargel told the Times. “I think it’s a better alignment of where the population centers are.”

The Supreme Court opinion drew a dissent from one member of the court. Justice Ricky Polston wrote that the proposal isn’t supported by appeals courts, would be costly and would disrupt the judiciary.

The 2nd district’s administrative offices are located in downtown Lakeland, but cases have been heard in Tampa for the last five years after the courthouse here was declared nonfunctional because of air-quality issues.

Supporters of moving the court’s headquarters to Tampa or St. Petersburg have argued that most of the judges live in those areas and a majority of cases emanate from there.

Five of the committee’s 15 members — four appellate judges and a public defender — favored keeping the current district lines, writing that the appeals judges are not impeded from handling their caseloads.

The chief justices in all five districts oppose the changed the courts did not request a change, Justice Polston noted in his dissent.