Florida's Court System
Florida's Court System
The Supreme Court of Florida
The highest Court in Florida is the Supreme Court, which is composed of seven Justices. At least five Justices must participate in every case and at least four must agree for a decision to be reached. The Court's official headquarters is the Supreme Court Building in Tallahassee.
To be eligible for the office of Justice, a person must be a qualified elector who resides in Florida and must have been admitted to the practice of law in Florida for the preceding 10 years.
For most of Florida's history, all judges were chosen by direct election of the people. The only exception was when a vacancy occurred on a court between elections. In that case, the Governor appointed a replacement to serve until the next election was held.
This election of judges led to many problems. Judges had to raise campaign money, which often was donated by the same attorneys who practiced before the Court. By the mid-1970s, the problem became even more serious after several Florida judges were charged with violations of ethics.
In 1971, Governor Reubin Askew took the first step toward reforming the system. That year he instituted a system called "merit selection." Under this system, the Governor referred a Court vacancy to an impartial panel, which suggested names of possible appointees. The Governor then selected a name from the list. In 1974, Justice Ben F. Overton became the first Supreme Court Justice chosen by this method.
Leaders knew, however, that a more complete change still was needed, because judges still faced periodic elections after appointment. The effort to do this was spearheaded by Governor Reubin Askew, Chief Justice Overton, and State Rep. Sandy D'Alemberte (now President of Florida State University), among others.
As a result, Florida voters amended the Constitution in 1976 to create a "merit retention" system for Florida's appellate judges. This system was meant to eliminate the many problems caused by judges running for office in an election.
When there is a vacancy on the Court today, this system means that the Governor chooses the next Justice from a list of three qualified persons recommended by the Judicial Nominating Commission. When Justices' terms expire, their names will appear on the general election ballot for a merit retention vote, if they wish to remain in office.
Under this system, the voters have eliminated contested elections in which appellate Justices and judges campaign against other candidates. Instead, the question on the ballot is: "Shall Justice _____ be retained in office?"
If a majority of the votes cast are not in favor of retaining the incumbent Justice, the Governor appoints another person to fill the vacancy. This person is chosen from a list of individuals whose applications have been reviewed and who have been found qualified by the Judicial Nominating Commission.
The Chief Justice
By a majority vote of the Justices, one of the Justices is elected to serve as Chief Justice, an office that is rotated every two years. The Chief Justice presides at all proceedings of the Court. If the Chief Justice is absent from Court, the most senior Justice present becomes acting Chief Justice. By longstanding tradition, the most senior Justice who has not yet served as Chief Justice is elected to the top post in every even-numbered year.
As chief administrative officer of the entire State judicial system, the Chief Justice assigns Justices and judges, including retired Justices and judges who consent and are approved by the Court to serve, to duty in courts that require temporary assistance. The Chief Justice supervises the compilation and presentation of the judicial budget to the Legislature.
Among other constitutional duties, the Chief Justice presides or designates another Justice to preside over impeachment proceedings in the Senate. The Chief Justice is assisted in the performance of administrative tasks by an Inspector General (presently Jim Boyd) and a State Courts Administrator (presently Ken Palmer).
The Chief Justice also is frequently called upon to swear in State officers. By longstanding custom, the Chief Justice swears in each newly elected Governor. From around 1905 to 1937, a single Bible was used to swear in all Governors. That Bible now is on display in the glass case in the Supreme Court Library.
The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is set out in the Constitution with some degree of flexibility by which the Legislature may add or take away certain categories of cases. The Court must review final orders imposing death sentences, district court decisions declaring a State statute or provision of the State Constitution invalid, bond validations, and certain orders of the Public Service Commission on utility rates and services.
In addition to these forms of mandatory review authority, the Court at its discretion may review any decision of a district court of appeal that expressly declares valid a State statute, construes a provision of the State or federal constitution, affects a class of constitutional or State officers, or directly conflicts with a decision of another district court or of the Supreme Court on the same question of law.
The Supreme Court may review certain categories of judgments, decisions, and questions of law certified to it by the district courts of appeal and federal appellate courts.
The Supreme Court has the constitutional authority to issue the extraordinary writs of prohibition, mandamus, quo warranto, and habeas corpus and to issue all other writs necessary to the complete exercise of its jurisdiction, such as an order to stay lower court proceedings.
An extraordinary writ is an order commanding a person or entity to perform or to refrain from performing a particular act. These writs, which bear names as ancient as their common-law origins, have been considered indispensable to our legal system, and the Constitution specifically authorizes their issuance in a proper case without the necessity of having to proceed initially to trial.
They are by nature "extraordinary," and for that reason are not available as an alternative to the usual trial and appeal. Both by their historical development and by current judicial decisions, the writs are made available only in a narrow class of exceptional cases.
Probably the best-known writ is habeas corpus, which may be invoked by any person who seeks release from custody or confinement that is asserted to be unlawful. Upon application to any Justice or judge, the persons may test the legality of their detention, not as to guilt or innocence, but solely as to whether the commitment to custody was lawful and the retention in custody is in accordance with the requirements of due process.
Two writs, closely related, are prohibition, by which a court may prevent a lower tribunal from acting upon matters that are not within its jurisdiction or from exceeding its lawful powers, and mandamus, by which a court may compel an official to perform a duty the law requires but that the official has failed or refused to perform.
The writ of quo warranto, although rarely sought, is available to challenge the right of public officials to hold the offices to which they claim entitlement.
The Supreme Court also renders advisory opinions to the Governor, upon request, on questions relating to the Governor's constitutional duties and powers. As the state's highest tribunal, the Supreme Court possesses distinctive powers that are essential to the exercise of the state's judicial power but that are not, strictly speaking, decision-making powers in contested cases.
The Court promulgates rules governing the practice and procedure in all Florida courts, subject to the power of the Legislature to repeal any rule by a two-thirds vote of its membership, and the Court has the authority to repeal (if five Justices concur) any rule adopted by the Judicial Qualifications Commission.
The Court has exclusive authority to regulate the admission and discipline of lawyers in Florida. To assist in the performance of those regulatory powers, the Court has adopted a code of professional conduct, established the Florida Board of Bar Examiners to administer the admissions process, and created The Florida Bar to superintend bar governance.
The Court has been assigned the responsibility to discipline and remove judicial officers. The Court has adopted a Code of Judicial Conduct, and upon the recommendation of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, it may discipline or remove any Justice or judge who is found to have violated code standards.
No single aspect of the Court's jurisdiction receives more public notice than the death penalty cases. Most people are unaware that the Court is strictly required to follow a procedure dictated by the U.S. Supreme Court. Under this procedure, the Court must look at what are called "aggravating" and "mitigating" factors. Aggravating factors include the fact that a murder was "execution-style" or was very torturous. Mitigating factors can include mental illness, contributions to the community during life, or the fact the murderer was very young. Death can never be imposed if there are no aggravating factors.
If at least one aggravating factor exists, the Court then must see how it weighs against the mitigating factors. If the aggravating factors are weightiest, then death is a legal penalty.
People sometimes ask where Florida's electric chair is housed. It is not located in Tallahassee, but is kept in a State prison in a rural area between Jacksonville and Gainesville. Florida has no permanent executioner, but allows residents of the State to qualify as a "volunteer" for this role. Each executioner is paid a small amount for the effort. Identities of the executioners are never revealed. In late 1994, there were only three Floridians on the State's list of "active executioners."
When the day of execution arrives, the Court also plays another role. By longstanding tradition, one Justice will be present at the Court at the time of execution. A three-way phone conversation then is started between the Governor's office, the Court, and the State prison. If necessary, the Justice has the power to order the execution delayed; but this has never happened in recent memory.
Under Florida law, someone who committed a capital crime at an age less than 16 cannot be executed.
Article V, section 3(c) of the Florida Constitution authorizes the Supreme Court to appoint a clerk who holds office at the pleasure of the Court. All papers, records, files, and the seal of the Supreme Court are kept in the custody of the clerk. The clerk receives all documents filed in cases, circulates that material to the Justices, and releases orders and opinions of the Court to the public.
The clerk appoints a chief deputy clerk to discharge the duties of the office in the clerk's absence.
Under Article V, section 3(c) of the Florida Constitution, the Supreme Court appoints a marshal to serve at the pleasure of the Court. The marshal has the power to execute the process of the Court throughout the State and to deputize the sheriff or a deputy sheriff of any county to assist in those duties. The marshal also orders and distributes supplies used by the Justices and their staff, serves as custodian of the Supreme Court Building and grounds, and supervises security for the Court.
Supreme Court Library
Early Court records indicate the Supreme Court Library, which is located in the south wing of the Supreme Court Building, has been continuously in existence since 1845. The Library -- the oldest state-supported library in Florida -- primarily exists for legal research. It was originally designed for the use of the Supreme Court and the attorneys who practice before it.
Until the Constitution of 1885 was amended in 1956, the clerk of the Supreme Court also served as librarian. Since 1956, the Supreme Court has had a librarian whose sole responsibility is administering the library.
Law books may be divided into two general classes: primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are court decisions, acts of legislative assemblies, official statutes, rules and regulations of governmental agencies, and similar pronouncements in published form.
Secondary sources are works that attempt to explain, rationalize or discuss specific aspects of the law, or that are aids in the search for primary sources.
The library has been designated a federal depository library for legal materials published by the Government Printing Office. The collections include practically all of the reported decisions of all American courts. In addition to the 50 states, the library has reports for courts of the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Panama Canal Zone, England, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and Scotland. The library also has current statute law for all 50 states plus the United Kingdom and Canada. In addition, the Supreme Court Library houses many historical documents related to the development of the Florida Supreme Court. These include a number of rare books that detail the development of Florida law.
The library occupies floor space on four levels of the Supreme Court Building. It is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and it is closed on holidays when the Supreme Court Building is closed.
Florida Supreme Court Historical Society
One of the newest agencies assisting the Court is the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society. The society was reactivated in 1983 through the efforts of Delphene Strickland, with the support of Justice Ben F. Overton, Chesterfield Smith, Reese Smith, Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, Bob Ervin, and Lewis Hall. The Society serves the primary function of collecting and preserving materials relevant to the Court's lengthy history.
The Society has had considerable success. Its members and officers have contacted the families of former Justices, have obtained gifts of historical materials, and have conducted oral histories to further preserve the Court's rich history, among other endeavors.
One example of the Society's work is the Waterbury Clock located on the Library's main level. This instrument was manufactured around 1910-1919, and most likely was purchased by the Court for the previous Supreme Court building constructed in 1912. The clock later was purchased from the Court by Justice T. Frank Hobson, who served from 1948 until his retirement in 1962. In 1986, the Hobson family returned the clock to the Court in memory of Justice Hobson.
Other activities of the Society have included the regular publication of the REVIEW, the presentation of oral history programs throughout the state, the compiling and publication of historical materials, and the presentation of exhibits in the Supreme Court rotunda, in the Historic Old Capitol building and at The Florida Bar Conventions. The Society also has published a history of the Court from territorial days until 1917. The work was done in part with a $25,000 grant from The Florida Bar Foundation. Information on the forthcoming publication of the book can be obtained by calling Nancy Dobson at (850) 222-3703
The newest project of the Society is the Supreme Court Docent Program, which will increase public access to the Court by providing tours and other informational services. As part of the project, the Society has developed and published a book entitled The Supreme Court of Florida, which is the source of the material on these Internet home pages.
The Legal Profession
The Florida Bar
The Florida Bar, with executive offices in Tallahassee, is the state-wide professional organization of lawyers. Since 1949, Florida has an "integrated bar," which means all lawyers admitted to the practice of law in Florida must be members of the official professional association.
The authority for the establishment and maintenance of the Bar as an integrated bar association is a 1949 rule of the Supreme Court based on the Court's constitutional authority to regulate the practice of law in Florida. The rule was adopted in an opinion written by Justice Glenn Terrell in which he made the often-quoted observation that lawyers owe a special duty to our society's democratic ideals.
The Bar assists the Court by recommending disciplinary action in grievance proceedings against lawyers and in cases of complaints of the practice of law by unauthorized persons. Committees of the Bar frequently draft, and propose to the Court, amendments to Court rules of procedure. The Florida Bar, with the cooperation of 63 local bar associations, conducts public information programs, assists in providing legal aid to people who are unable to pay legal fees, and provides educational services to members through seminars and publications.
The governing body of the Bar is the Board of Governors, whose members are elected by members of the Bar. The administration of Bar activities is coordinated by an executive director, staff counsel, and director of Continuing Legal Education.
The Board of Bar Examiners
The Florida Board of Bar Examiners, located in Tallahassee, is an instrument of the Supreme Court designed to assure that only qualified persons will be admitted to the practice of law. Created by a 1955 rule of the Court, it is composed of three non-lawyer members who serve three-year terms and 12 members of the Bar who serve staggered, five-year terms. Members are usually elected by the Court from slates of nominees submitted by the Board of Governors.
The board's functions are to determine the professional competence of applicants for admission to practice by conducting written examinations in subjects determined by the Court, to investigate the character and other qualifications of applicants, and to submit to the Supreme Court the names of all applicants who are deemed fully qualified for admission to practice. Admission to the Bar is finally accomplished by rule of the Court.
The Office of the State Courts Administrator
On July 1, 1972, the Office of the State Courts Administrator (OSCA) was created with initial emphasis on the development of a uniform case reporting system to provide information on activity in the judiciary in the preparation of its operating budget and in projecting the need for judges and specialized court divisions.
The State Courts Administrator serves as the liaison between the court system and the legislative branch, the executive branch, the auxiliary agencies of the Court, and national court research and planning agencies. The OSCA's legislative and communication functions are handled directly by the State courts administrator and his executive staff.
The District Courts of Appeal
The bulk of trial court decisions that are appealed are never heard by the Supreme Court. Rather, they are reviewed by three-judge panels of the district courts of appeal. Florida did not have district courts of appeal until they were first approved in 1957.
Until that time, all appeals were heard solely by the Supreme Court. As Florida grew rapidly in the Twentieth Century, however, the Supreme Court's docket had become badly congested. Justice Elwyn Thomas with help from other members of the Court perceived the problem and successfully lobbied for the creation of the district-court system.
The Constitution now provides that the Legislature shall divide the State into appellate court districts and that there shall be a district court of appeal (DCA) serving each district. There are five such districts that are headquartered in Tallahassee, Lakeland, Miami, West Palm Beach, and Daytona Beach.
As of January 1995, fifteen judges serve in the First DCA, fourteen serve in the Second DCA, eleven serve in the Third DCA, twelve serve in the Fourth DCA, and nine serve in the Fifth DCA. That makes a total of 61 DCA judges.
The wisdom of creating the DCA is beyond question. By 1994, the DCAs were hearing about 20,000 appeals annually. It literally would be impossible for a single appellate court to hear that many cases today. The Florida Supreme Court's case number runs around 2,000 a year, which is considered a full docket.
DCA judges must meet the same eligibility requirements for appointment to office, and they are subject to the same procedures and conditions for discipline and removal from office, as Justices of the Supreme Court. Like Supreme Court Justices, district court judges also serve terms of six years and will be eligible for successive terms under a merit retention vote of the electors in their districts.
In each district court, a chief judge, who is selected by the body of district court judges, is responsible for the administrative duties of the court.
The jurisdiction of the district courts of appeal extends to appeals from final judgments or orders of trial courts in cases that either are not directly appealable to the Supreme Court or are not taken from a county court to a circuit court and to the review of certain non-final orders. By general law, the district courts have been granted the power to review most actions taken by State agencies in carrying out the duties of the executive branch of government.
Finally, the district courts have been granted constitutional authority to issue the extraordinary writs of certiorari, prohibition, mandamus, quo warranto, and habeas corpus, as well as all other writs necessary to the complete exercise of their jurisdiction.
As a general rule, decisions of the district courts of appeal represent the final appellate review of litigated cases. A person who is displeased with a district court's express decision may ask for review in the Florida Supreme Court or in the United States Supreme Court, but neither tribunal is required to accept the case for further review; the overwhelming number of requests are in fact denied.
The Circuit Courts
Until 1973, Florida had more different kinds of trial courts than any state except New York. A movement developed in the late 1960s to reform this confusing system. As a result, Florida now has a simple two-tier court system. A temporary exception was the municipal court, which was not abolished until January 1, 1977. Most of these courts in major population areas were abolished on January 1, 1973.
The majority of jury trials in Florida take place before one judge sitting as judge of the circuit court. The circuit courts are sometimes referred to as courts of general jurisdiction, in recognition of the fact that most criminal and civil cases originate at this level.
The Constitution provides that a circuit court shall be established to serve each judicial circuit established by the Legislature, of which there are twenty. Within each circuit, there may be any number of judges, depending upon the population and caseload of the particular area.
To be eligible for the office of circuit judge, a person must be a resident elector of Florida and must have been admitted to the practice of law in the State for the preceding five years.
Circuit court judges are elected by the voters of the circuits in nonpartisan, contested elections against other persons who choose to qualify as candidates for the position. Circuit court judges serve for six-year terms, and they are subject to the same disciplinary standards and procedures as Supreme Court Justices and district court judges.
A chief judge is chosen from among the circuit judges in each judicial circuit to carry out administrative responsibilities for all trial courts (both circuit and county courts) within the circuit.
Circuit courts have general trial jurisdiction over matters not assigned by statute to the county courts and also hear appeals from county court cases. Thus, circuit courts are simultaneously the highest trial courts and the lowest appellate courts in Florida's judicial system.
The trial jurisdiction of circuit courts includes, among other matters, original jurisdiction over civil disputes involving more than $15,000; controversies involving the estates of decedents, minors, and persons adjudicated to be incompetent; cases relating to juveniles; criminal prosecutions for all felonies; tax disputes; actions to determine the title and boundaries of real property; suits for declaratory judgments that is, to determine the legal rights or responsibilities of parties under the terms of written instruments, laws, or regulations before a dispute arises and leads to litigation and requests for injunctions to prevent persons or entities from acting in a manner that is asserted to be unlawful.
Lastly, circuit judges are also granted the power to issue the extraordinary writs of certiorari, prohibition, mandamus, quo warranto, and habeas corpus, and all other writs necessary to the complete exercise of their jurisdiction.
The County Courts
The Constitution establishes a county court in each of Florida's 67 counties. The number of judges in each county court varies with the population and caseload of the county. To be eligible for the office of county judge, a person must be a resident of the county and must have been a member of The Florida Bar for five years; in counties with a population of 40,000 or less, a person must only be a member of The Florida Bar.
County judges who have been members of the Bar for at least five years are eligible for assignment to circuit court, and they are frequently assigned as such within the judicial circuit that embraces their counties.
County judges serve four-year terms, and they are subject to the same disciplinary standards, and to the jurisdiction of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, as all other judicial officers. In lieu of impeachment, however, they are subject to suspension by the Governor.
The trial jurisdiction of county courts is established by statute. The jurisdiction of county courts extends to civil disputes involving $10,000 or less for actions accruing on or after July 1, 1990, and $15,000 for causes of action accruing on or after July 1, 1992.
The majority of non-jury trials in Florida take place before one judge sitting as a judge of the county court. The county courts are sometimes referred to as "the people's courts," probably because a large part of the courts' work involves volume citizen disputes, such as traffic offenses, less serious criminal matters (misdemeanors), and relatively small monetary disputes.
Other Judicial Officials
The Constitution creates official positions essential to the administration of justice and to the operation of the state's judicial system. Clerks of courts are created to manage and preserve the record of judicial proceedings.
In each of the 20 judicial circuits, a State Attorney is elected for a term of four years to prosecute persons charged with criminal conduct. The 1963 Legislature established the office of Public Defender in each circuit to defend indigent criminal defendants in all but a small number of minor matters. Public defenders are also elected for a term of four years.
Last Updated 3/14/00
The Florida Courts System is divided into five districts which are made up of 20 circuits which are made up of 67 counties. Links are provided below to review a brief description of each of these different jurisdictions and to access the available pages for the respective courts.
District Courts of Appeal
Below is a list of the Florida district courts of appeal including the circuits which make up each district. In addition to accessing the available district court web sites, you can access a brief description of the district courts and the distribution of the districts across the state.
• http://www.1dca.org/First District Court of Appeal -- 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 8th and 14th Circuits
• Second District Court of Appeal (Opinions) -- 6th, 10th, 12th, 13th and 20th Circuits
• Third District Court of Appeal -- 11th and 16th Circuits
• Fourth District Court of Appeal -- 15th, 17th and 19th Circuits
• Fifth District Court of Appeal -- 5th, 7th, 9th and 18th Circuits
Below is a list of the Florida circuit courts including the counties which make up each circuit. In addition to accessing the available circuit court web sites, you can access a brief description of the circuit courts and the distribution of the circuits across the state.
• First Circuit -- Escambia, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton
• Second Circuit -- Franklin, Gadsden, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, and Wakulla
• Third Circuit -- Columbia, Dixie, Hamilton, Lafayette, Madison, Suwannee and Taylor
• Fourth Circuit -- Clay, Duval and Nassau
• Fifth Circuit -- Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter
• Sixth Circuit -- Pasco and Pinellas
• Seventh Circuit -- St. Johns, Volusia, Flagler and Putnam
• Eighth Circuit -- Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Gilchrist, Levy, and Union
• Ninth Circuit -- Orange and Osceola
• Tenth Circuit -- Hardee, Highlands, and Polk
• Eleventh Circuit -- Dade
• Twelfth Circuit -- DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota
• Thirteenth Circuit -- Hillsborough
• Fourteenth Circuit -- Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson and Washington
• Fifteenth Circuit -- Palm Beach
• Sixteenth Circuit -- Monroe
• Seventeenth Circuit -- Broward
• Eighteenth Circuit -- Brevard and Seminole
• Nineteenth Circuit -- Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee and St. Lucie
• Twentieth Circuit -- Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee