Residents, lawyers and Key West courthouse workers will notice some different faces behind the bench when Keys judges begin their new assignments come Jan. 1.
Chief Circuit Judge David Audlin is required by the Florida Supreme Court to schedule judges to specific dockets every six months, and his latest order means circuit Judge Tegan Slaton will be handling more high-profile criminal cases come the start of the new year.
Circuit Judge Mark Jones will still handle many felony criminal cases, but Slaton will be picking up about a third of them, Audlin said.
"The chief judge makes the assignments and I march," Slaton said with a chuckle. "It's all for the betterment of the system, so we're all trained in an effort to help each other as needed."
Slaton will not hear those criminal felony cases where the defendant is assigned a public defender. He is married to Monroe County Public Defender Rosemary Enright, and that would create possible conflicts of interest, Audlin said. Those cases will still be handled by Jones.
Slaton is currently hearing many civil cases and presiding over a large chunk of the family court cases. The move will also help Slaton become certified to hear death penalty cases as that is part of the Florida Supreme Court requirement that circuit judges work the felony criminal docket beforehand, Audlin said.
Audlin wants all the Keys judges to be certified to hear all kinds of cases, which gives him flexibility in assigning judges, he said.
If Audlin needs a judge to fill a hole in the docket and doesn't have one, he is forced to call the Florida Supreme Court and ask if it can order a Miami-Dade County judge to visit Monroe County. That creates a burden on everyone involved, he said.
"Every time we have to do that, it creates an inconvenience, to put it mildly," Audlin said. "Having all our judges trained up and meeting all those requirements really reduces that."
As it stands now, county Judge Wayne Miller has been picking up the felony criminal cases not handled by Jones, but that is set to change as Miller will begin presiding over civil cases, which will include the docket-heavy property foreclosure cases.
"We're getting them (foreclosure cases) resolved and making good process," Audlin said. "I think Judge Miller and the energy he brings will be a big help to us on that docket."
The change also means Jones will be heading to Marathon a couple days a week to help with the family docket in the Middle Keys, Audlin said.
Retired senior circuit Judge Sandra Taylor will continue to hear cases as needed as well, Audlin said. The Florida Supreme Court certified Taylor to hear cases on an as-needed basis and that will continue, Audlin said.
In all, the changes should help the courts continue to process the litany of property foreclosure cases that have spiked since the 2008 housing market crash.
Shuffling judges from time to time is nothing new in most small communities.
"We're like many other smaller circuits," said Trial Court Administrator Holly Elomina. "It's the boat we're in."
Monroe County comprises Florida's 16th Judicial Circuit.