SEBRING - With the retirement of one judge in Highlands County and possible other changes during the next several years, judges are hoping that more local attorneys will step up to the plate and apply to become judges.
Judge Wm. Bruce Smith, chief judge of the 10th Judicial Circuit that includes Highlands, Polk and Hardee counties, said the retirement last month of long-time Circuit Judge J. David Langford points to the need to encourage Highlands County attorneys to apply.
Smith said that in recent years all the judges serving Highlands County lived in Highlands County, but that has changed with the retirement of Langford. William Sites, who was appointed as judge earlier this year, is now traveling from Polk County to handle criminal cases in Highlands County, Smith said.
The judge who will actually replace Langford, Andrea Smith, won't officially begin her position until later this year, he said.
Smith said that Judge Olin W. Shinhouser, who handles family court, will likely retire sometime within the next several years and that would create the possibility a second judge would need to travel to Highlands County.
Judges are more than willing to accept assignments in another county, but "it is nice to have people who are local," said Judge Angela J. Cowden, who handles juvenile, probate guardianship, and mental health courts. "The commute can be a daunting part of the task."
She said one judge previously assigned to Highlands County commuted nearly two hours each way from the northern part of Polk County.
Cowden has residences in Polk County and Lake Placid.
Langford's retirement not only resulted in the reassignment of a judge from Polk County, but also coincided with a reassignment of most of the judges in handling different types of cases.
Smith said there hadn't been a rotation of judges for several years in Highlands County and he believes the judges benefit from handling different types of cases and that it helps them avoid burnout.
While Shinhouser remained in family court, Cowden was previously in criminal court and Judge Peter F. Estrada, who will take over civil court from Langford, previously handled juvenile, probate and mental health courts.
Cowden said she has never handled juvenile court before, other than filling in for other judges.
"It makes you a more rounded individual," she said, about having the opportunity to handle different types of cases.