The Florida judicial branch, along with the executive and legislative branches of the state government, exercises authority and manages state affairs. The court system comprises two trial-level courts and two appellate-level courts. The trial courts are the Circuit and County Courts while the appellate courts are Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court. There are five District Courts of Appeal, 20 Circuit Courts, and 67 County Courts. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court sits as the chief administrative officer of the state's judicial branch. However, each court has a dedicated administrative office that generates Florida court records pertaining to judicial proceedings in the state.
The County Courts and Circuit Courts are the first contacts with the judicial system in Florida for most residents. Majority of civil and criminal cases in Florida originate at the Circuit Court level. Cases from these trial courts may be appealed to the Court of Appeal where necessary. The Supreme Court is the apex court in the state and may review decisions of the Courts of Appeal.
The Florida Supreme Court sits in Tallahassee and has seven justices who serve six-year terms. Five justices constitute a quorum in the apex court. Four of these justices must agree for a decision to be reached in the Florida Supreme Court. A person must reside in Florida and be admitted into the practice of law in the state for the preceding ten years to be eligible for the office of justice in the Supreme Court.
The Courts of Appeal is divided into five districts with a total of 64 judges who serve six-year terms, 15 judges serve in the first district in Tallahassee, 16 judges serve in the second district in Lakeland, 10 judges serve in the third district in Miami, 12 judges serve in the fourth district in West Palm Beach, and 11 judges serve in the fifth district in Daytona Beach. Cases handled in the District Courts of Appeal are reviewed by three-judge panels. Like Supreme Court Justices, District Courts of Appeal Justices are appointed by the Governor and stand for retention vote every six years within their districts.
There are 605 judges in Florida's 20 judicial circuits. These judges preside individually and are not on panels. Florida assigns judges to each circuit based on the caseload handled in the circuit. Circuit Court judges serve six-year terms. Each of Florida's 67 counties has at least one judge. In all, there are 330 judges in the County Courts. The judges do not sit on panels but preside individually.
Pursuant to Ch, 2020-61, Laws of Florida, beginning from January 1, 2021, parties appealing certain County Court decisions have their appeals heard in the District Courts. Appeals of the decisions of County Courts pending before Circuit Courts and subject to the jurisdiction change will be transferred automatically to the appropriate District Court of Appeal.
In Florida, there are also federal courts, including federal appellate courts, which are responsible for hearing federal cases pertaining to federal law or in direct correlation to the federal judiciary. These courts also hear appeals from lower courts.
What is the Florida Supreme Court?
The Florida Supreme Court is the highest court in the state and an appellate court. By state constitution, the court must review all cases where a death sentence is imposed, where a District Court invalidated a state statute or some aspect of the constitution, bond validations, and some specific orders of the Public Service Commission regarding public utilities rates and services. The court holds discretionary jurisdiction over certain cases, such as cases regarding the interpretation of the constitution, review of trial court judgments, issues certified as of great public importance, certified direct conflicts, and certified questions issued by federal courts. With the assistance of the Office of the State Courts Administrator, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court oversees the administration of the entire state court system. The Florida Supreme Court has exclusive authority to regulate the admission and discipline of lawyers in Florida as well as the authority to discipline and remove judges.
The Supreme Court gives advisory opinions to the Governor, on request, on matters pertaining to the Governor's constitutional powers and responsibilities. As the highest tribunal of Florida, the apex court has distinctive powers that are crucial to the state's judicial power but that are not decision-making powers in contested cases. The Supreme Court formulates the procedures and practices of all Florida courts, subject to the power of the legislature to repeal any rule by a two-thirds vote of its membership. If five justices of the Supreme Court concurs, the court has the right to repeal any rule adopted by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission.
Supreme Court judges are appointed by the Governor from a list of candidates recommended by the Judicial Nominating Commission. The appointment of a justice must be confirmed by a retention vote held at least one year after assuming office. Justices of the Supreme Court may be removed at the recommendation of the Nominating Commission or through impeachment by a two-thirds vote of the Florida House of Representatives and conviction by a two-thirds vote of the Florida State Senate.
Florida District Courts of Appeal
Until 1957, all appeals were heard in the Supreme Court. As the state's population grew, the Supreme Court's caseload increased rapidly. The establishment of a district-court system to provide intermediate appellate courts was Florida's response to help lessen the caseload and provide a more rapid resolution to appellate cases in the state.
Florida's five District Courts of Appeal (DCAs) do not hold trials. They solely handle appeals from the County and Circuit Courts and the majority of the administrative law appeals from actions by the executive branch. Many of the appeals of the decisions of the County and Circuit Courts go to the District Courts of Appeal, where three-judge panels review the facts and circumstances surrounding a case from the trial courts and correct any harmful errors that may have occurred, such as situations where constitutional rights were violated during trials.
As of January 1, 2020, the DCAs review appeals of county court decisions where the amount in controversy exceeds $15,000. By January 1, 2021, the DCAs will assume jurisdiction over criminal and most civil appeals from County Court decisions. Justices of the DCAs sit in Tallahassee, Lakeland, Miami, West Palm Beach and Daytona Beach. The divisions of the court are:
- First Appellate District: Alachua, Baker, Bay, Bradford, Calhoun, Clay, Columbia, Dixie, Duval, Escambia, Franklin, Gadsden, Gilchrist, Gulf, Hamilton, Holmes, Jackson, Lafayette, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Nassau, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Suwannee, Taylor, Union, Wakulla, Walton, Washington.
- Second Appellate District: Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Sarasota.
- Third Appellate District: Dade, Monroe.
- Fourth Appellate District: Broward, Indian River. Okeechobee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie, Martin.
- Fifth Appellate District: Brevard, Citrus, Flagler, Hernando, Lake, Marion, Orange, Osceola, Putnam, Seminole, St. Johns, Sumter, Volusia.
The DCAs are authorized to issue extraordinary writs of certiorari, prohibition, mandamus, quo warranto, and habeas corpus, and any other writs required to exercise their jurisdiction. Decisions of the DCAs are considered final appellate reviews of litigated cases. However, any party aggrieved by the decision of the District Court may seek another review in the Supreme Court and later in the United States Supreme Court. Both tribunals hold discretionary jurisdiction over such reviews and are under no compulsion to accept the requests. Typically, most are denied.
Under Florida statutes, District Courts of Appeal judges must meet the same criteria for appointment to office, and are subject to the same conditions and procedures for discipline and removal from offices, as Supreme Court justices. DCA judges serve six-year terms and may be retained via a merit retention vote of the electors in their district. A chief judge is selected in each District Court by the District Court judges to be responsible for the administrative duties of the court.
Florida Circuit Courts
Circuit Courts in Florida are general trial courts of general jurisdiction with one in each of the 20 geographic regions of the state. These courts hear the appeals of the decisions of the County Courts and handle cases that are not assigned to the County Courts by statute. Such cases include civil disputes involving more than $30,000 (increased from over $15,000 on January 1, 2020), all felony criminal cases, tax disputes, family law cases, estate disputes, and juvenile delinquency and dependency cases, mental health, probate, guardianships cases. Florida Circuit Courts are authorized to issue extraordinary writs necessary to the complete exercise of their jurisdiction.
Florida Circuit Courts are 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.
Florida County Courts
Florida County Courts are at the base of the state judicial hierarchy and are considered courts of limited jurisdiction. Sometimes called the people's courts, County Courts handle a huge portion of citizens' disputes, such as landlord-tenant disputes, misdemeanor criminal matters, violations of municipal and county ordinances, traffic offenses, and monetary disputes up to and including $30,000 (increased from up to and including $15,000 on January 1, 2020). Cases of simplified dissolution of marriages may also be heard by County Court judges. Cases that do not require juries are mostly tried in County Courts before single judges of County Courts. Each of Florida’s 67 counties has at least one county court judge.
Florida Problem-Solving Courts
Florida Problem-Solving Courts seek to address the fundamental causes of justice system involvement through a non-adversarial approach, multidisciplinary teams, and specialized dockets. Through evidence-based treatments, judicial supervision, and accountability, Florida Problem-Solving Courts aim to improve public safety, reduce recidivism, restore lives, and promote satisfaction and confidence with the justice system process.
Florida initiated the national problem-solving court gesture with its creation of the first drug court in the United States in Miami-Dade County in 1989. Subsequently, several other types of problem-solving courts dockets were implemented using the drug court blueprint. With largely similar defining elements, the other dockets were established to assist individuals with a range of problems, including drug addiction, domestic violence, mental illness, child abuse or neglect, and homelessness.
The locations of Florida's Problem-Solving Courts are published in a directory on the Florida Courts website.
What are Florida Appeals and Court Limits?
Appeals are made to higher courts to review decisions of trial courts or lower tribunals to determine if legal errors occurred during the determination of cases. Appeals are not considered trials and are not established to give litigants a second opportunity to reargue facts to cases. Florida appellate courts do not serve as second juries.
The Florida Rules of Appellate Procedure specifies the time limit for initiating appeals in the state. A Notice of Appeal must be filed with the Clerk of the lower court or administrative agency within 30 days of the date from which a judgment was rendered. If a Notice of Appeal is not filed within this stipulated limit, the court cannot take the appeal.
How Do I Find My Case Number in Florida?
A case number is a unique number allocated to a particular court case. Case numbers are typically allocated by trial courts or courts with limited jurisdiction and are determined by each court. Case numbers may contain all numbers, letters and numbers, or include special characters, such as dashes. Many courts attach specific meanings to case numbers as used in those courts.
Case numbers can be found using online portals provided by some of the counties in Florida. Some of these counties, such as Broward and Miami-Dade Counties allow users of their online case information portals to find case information by using other search filters such as party name or attorney information. Typically, when users conduct case information searches using other search filters, the search result will display the case number for all returned entries. It is also possible to obtain case numbers by contacting the clerk of court in the courthouse where the case was filed. Charges may apply for obtaining this service from the county clerk offices.
Case numbers allow for easy reference to specific cases and are hence useful for tracking court cases. They can help identify what year cases were filed and the judicial officers assigned to such cases.
Does Florida Hold Remote Trials?
Yes. Following the Florida Supreme Court order in March 2020 suspending jury trials due to the COVID-19 pandemic, five judicial circuits in the state were selected to take part in a pilot remote jury trial program. Entire trials, from jury selections to final verdicts were held remotely using the Zoom application. Florida holds the record for holding the first fully remote civil jury trial in the United States. Verdicts in Florida remote trials are legally binding.