The Florida court system consists of the Supreme Court at Tallahassee; five district courts of appeal which have appellate jurisdiction for most cases, located in Tallahassee, Daytona Beach, Lakeland (with a branch in Tampa), Miami and West Palm Beach; county courts in each of Florida's 67 counties; and 20 circuit courts having jurisdiction over one or more counties.
WHO PAYS FOR THE COURT SYSTEM?
The state pays the salaries of all judges and their secretaries. The state and counties share most of the remaining expenses, with the county providing the facilities used by trial courts. The state provides facilities for appellate courts.
County Courts, which are courts of limited jurisdiction, handle among other things:
- County and city ordinance violations, including traffic infractions.
- Minor offenses (misdemeanors) which provide for a maximum sentence of one year or less in the county jail.
- Civil cases involving amounts of $15,000 or less, such as landlord-tenant and small claims disputes.
- Domestic relations cases such as dissolution of marriage (divorce), guardianship and juvenile delinquency.
- Major criminal offenses (felonies) which can result in imprisonment in a state institution.
- Probate matters, such as the processing of wills and settling of estates of deceased persons.
- Civil cases involving amounts greater than $15,000.
- Appeals from county court judgments, except when a state statute or provision of the state constitution is held invalid.
The Florida Supreme Court, which has seven justices, decides the most important legal issues in Florida. Among other issues, the court decides:
- Constitutional construction questions.
- District court decisions holding invalid laws or provisions of the state constitution.
- Questions certified by the district courts as being of great public importance or in conflict with another district court's decision.
- Conflicts between those courts or between district courts and the Supreme Court.
- Bond validation judgments.
- The legal sufficiency of Public Service Commission rulings on electric, gas, or telephone utilities rates or service.
- The legal sufficiency of all judgments imposing the death penalty.
Circuit courts and county courts are located in each county. The county courts may meet in any location convenient to the people and at any time, including evenings and weekends.
The chief judge of each of Florida's 20 judicial circuits has the power to decide when and where circuit or county courts meet.
WHO CAN BE A JUDGE?
Under a law passed in 1978, all new judges must be lawyers. Before this law, county court judges in counties with a population of less than 40,000 did not have to be lawyers.
- A 1984 constitutional amendment requires county court judges to be members of The Florida Bar for five years except in counties with a population of less than 40,000.
- Circuit court judges must have been Florida lawyers for at least five years before their appointment or election.
- District court judges and Supreme Court justices must have been Florida lawyers for at least 10 years before their appointments.
- Judges must devote full time to their judicial duties and may not have a private law practice or hold office in any political party.
All circuit and county court judges who are not appointed by the governor to fill vacancies are chosen by the people in nonpartisan judicial elections.
Justices of the Supreme Court and judges of the district courts of appeal are appointed by the governor after their names have been submitted by a nominating commission. Incumbent justices of the Supreme Court and the judges of the district courts of appeal run for six-year terms under a merit retention system when the name of each justice or judge appears on the ballot as a question to the voters: Should the justice or judge be retained in office? When an unfavorable vote results, the judicial position becomes vacant automatically, and the nominating process begins anew.
HOW DOES THE JUDICIAL NOMINATING PROCESS WORK?
A nine-member panel of lawyers and non-lawyer members of the public screens applicants for vacant judgeships and recommends at least three nominees to the governor for appointment. Twenty-six judicial nominating commissions operate in Florida: one for the Supreme Court of Florida; one for each district court of appeal and one for each of the 20 judicial circuits. Each commission consists of three lawyers appointed by The Florida Bar; three members -- who may or may not be lawyers -- appointed by the governor, and three non-lawyer members of the public, selected by the other six members.
A 1984 constitutional amendment requires that uniform rules of procedure be established by commissions at each court system level and that certain records and proceedings be open to the public.
HOW ARE JUDGES DISCIPLINED?
Our state constitution establishes a "judicial qualifications commission" to investigate and recommend reprimand, suspension, or removal from office of any justice or judge who breaches the code of conduct. The state House of Representatives may, by vote of two-thirds of its members, impeach judges for misdemeanor crimes in office. The state Senate must convict a judge before he or she is removed from office.
WHAT IF YOU CANNOT AFFORD A LAWYER?
In criminal cases a public defender or private counsel may be appointed to represent an indigent defendant.
In civil matters, legal assistance can be found by looking under "Legal Aid" or "Legal Services" in the white pages of the telephone book, or by calling information for the telephone number of the nearest local bar association office.
HOW DO YOU FIND A LAWYER?
Consult the yellow pages for the number of your nearest lawyer referral service or dial The Florida Bar Lawyer Referral Service toll-free, 1-800-342-8011.
WHERE CAN YOU GET MORE INFORMATION?
State Courts Administrator
Supreme Court Building
Tallahassee, Florida 32399-1900
Telephone: (850) 922-5082
FLORIDA JUDICIAL SYSTEM
The Florida Bar
The Florida Board of Bar Examiners
District Courts of Appeal
As of 1992 Legislative Session
Numbers are subject to change
The material in this pamphlet represents general legal advice. Since the law is continually changing, some provisions in this pamphlet may be out of date. It is always best to consult an attorney about your legal rights and responsibilities regarding your particular case.