26 judges are on the case

J. Layne Smith

F. Judge Smith, how do trial judges distribute their workload? Ruth

A. Florida’s Second Judicial District includes Jefferson, Franklin, Gadsden, Leon, Liberty, and Wakulla counties. The legislature finances 16 district judges for these six districts. Leon County has five district judges and the other five counties each have one district judge. Together, these 26 judges elect a chairman every two years to administer our courts and assign the judges to their workload.

The constitution of the state and the laws enacted by the legislature give the district and district courts their power to hear and decide cases. Usually the chief judge assigns each judge a two-year assignment. For example, a district judge handles the crime cases in Gadsden County. Another district judge is responsible for all other district cases.

Sometimes a judge vacates a seat before the end of his term. If there is a change, the main judge makes a new assignment. When Judge James Hankinson retired, I was appointed to take his seat. In response, the chief judge held me responsible for Leon County’s juvenile offenses and 15 percent of family law cases. When Judge Charlie Dodson retired, the Chief Justice hired me to take over one-third of the Leon County’s Code of Civil Procedure.

Because of its population, Leon County generates more county and county cases than the other five counties combined.

Leon County Circuit cases are assigned to the Family Law, Crime, or Civil Litigation Department by type. The Family Law Department deals with divorces, child support, juvenile criminal law, injunctions and probate matters. The Criminal Offenses Division hears the criminal cases and the Civil Matters Division hears everything else, including claims for damages. It takes at least 10 full-time circuit judges to cover Leon County’s three divisions.

Three of our six counties are among the top 10 most sparsely populated in Florida, and workloads vary significantly from one county to another. Covering the criminal or civil duties of the county in Franklin, Jefferson, and Liberty Counties is not a full-time duty.

The judges who perform these duties take on additional duties, often across multiple districts, to round out their workload.

Like a hospital emergency room performing triage, legal proceedings prioritize hearing of criminal and family emergencies. The court staff assists the chief judge. He or she uses metrics, experience, and a rotation schedule to decide each judge’s work assignment.

Acting as the main judge is a challenge. Judges answer the electorate, the Supreme Court and the State Senate when things go very badly. Hence, being the chief judge is like a cat herder.

The judges of the second judiciary have re-elected Judge Jon Sjostrom as our boss for his third term. On behalf of my colleagues and myself, thank you, sir, for your guidance and service.

The Honorable J. Layne Smith is a district judge and writer. Send your questions to [email protected].

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