The Florida Bar
|THE STATE COURTS SYSTEM|
by Craig Waters
Updated June 2009
B. Public Information Office
D. Merit Retention of Appellate Judges
E. Appointment and Election of Trial Judges
F. Prohibited Activities
B. District Courts of Appeal
B. Circuit Courts.
C. County Courts.
D. Branch Courts.
E. Civil Traffic Infraction Hearing Officers.
B. Strategic Planning
C. Finance and Accounting
D. General Services
E. Personnel Services
F. Court Services
G. Information Systems Services
H. Court Education
I. Legal Affairs
J. Court Improvement
K. Dispute Resolution Center
L. Community and Inter-governmental Relations
Article V of the Constitution of Florida establishes state courts in which judicial power is vested and provides for the creation, organization, jurisdiction, and administration of the judicial branch of Florida. A revision to Article V, adopted by the voters of Florida on March 14, 1972, effective January 1, 1973, established a uniform state courts system consisting of the following courts:
1. The Supreme Court
2. District Courts of Appeal
3. Circuit Courts
4. County Courts
There can be no other courts established by the state or any other body. Before the revision, Florida had a confusing patchwork of courts that differed greatly from county to county and was under no central authority. The 1972 revisions placed the entire state courts system under the administrative control of the Chief Justice, though chief judges of the lower courts retain substantial discretion in administering their own courts. This was the first time Florida had a unified state courts system.
In 1998 voters approved another constitutional amendment, effective July 1, 2004, requiring the state to fund most court functions under a unified state courts' budget. Previously, counties paid a substantial portion of local court costs. Counties still pay for some things, notably security, construction, and maintenance of local courthouses. By contrast, all appellate court costs and expenses are paid by the state legislature.
The chief justice of the Supreme Court is the chief administrative officer of the judicial system and is chosen for a two-year term by the majority of the members of the Supreme Court. By custom, the Court names as chief justice the most senior justice who has not yet served in the post. Terms begin July 1 in even-numbered years. The chief justice oversees the state courts' budget and has the power to assign justices or judges to temporary duty in any court on which the judge is qualified to sit.
The chief judge of each district court of appeal also is chosen by a majority of the judges of the district court of appeal and is responsible for the administrative supervision of the district court of appeal.
Each circuit has its own chief judge who is chosen from among the circuit judges and who is responsible for the administrative supervision of the circuit courts and county courts in that circuit.
B. Public Information Office
In 1996 the Florida Supreme Court established its first Public Information Office to assist the media and handle other public information matters. Nearly all of the information provided by this office is available on the Internet at:
Press inquiries should be directed to Craig Waters or Jackie Hallifax in the office at (850) 414-7641 or by E-mail to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Information on the state courts system is available from another website:
No person is be eligible for the office of justice or judge of any court in this state unless that person is an elector of the state and resides within the jurisdiction of that court. No judge or justice can serve after reaching age 70 years except upon temporary assignment. However, if the judge or justice reaches ago 70 in the second half of the six-year term, she or he can continue in office until that term is completed. To become eligible for the office of justice of the Supreme Court or judge of the district court of appeal, one must have been a member of The Florida Bar for at least 10 years. To be eligible for the office of judge of the circuit court, one must have been a member of The Florida Bar for at least five years. A county court judge must be a member of The Florida Bar.
D. Merit Retention of Appellate Judges
Justices of the Supreme Court and judges on the district courts of appeal are put in office by the governor, who must select from a list of three to six names submitted by a judicial nominating commission. Afterward, they face election at the end of their terms in a process called merit retention. Voters have the opportunity only to say yes or no as to whether the justice or judge will remain in office. If they say no, the governor will appoint a replacement from a new list submitted by the nominating commission.
After appointment by the governor, the justice or judge must stand for a merit retention vote in the next general election that is more than one year after the date of appointment. Afterward, the justice or judge serves six year terms and will again stand for merit retention election at the end of each term.
E. Appointment and Election of Trial Judges
Trial judges technically stand for election in nonpartisan races every six years. However, if a vacancy occurs before the end of the judge's term, the governor appointments a replacement in a manner similar to the way appeals judges are chosen. Any candidate for judicial office, even if not a sitting judge, is bound by special ethical rules. These are contained in Canon 7 of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
F. Prohibited Activities:
All justices and judges must devote full-time to their judicial duties. They cannot practice law or hold office in any political party. Standards for judicial ethics are established in the Code of Judicial Conduct approved by the Florida Supreme Court. The Code is available on-line at:
The Judicial Qualifications Commission, a body independent of the courts, polices judicial conduct and has the authority to recommend discipline for misconduct, ranging from a public reprimand to removal from office. The Florida Supreme Court has the final say in what, if any, punishment is imposed for misconduct as a judge. If a Supreme Court justice is charged with misconduct, the other justices automatically are removed from the case and the matter is decided by senior judges from the lower courts sitting as a temporary Supreme Court. Information on the JQC is available on-line at:
The Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction to regulate the admission of persons to the practice of law and the discipline of persons admitted. Two agencies assist the Court. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners investigates the backgrounds of attorney candidates, administers tests to them, and makes recommendations to the Supreme Court regarding their admission to The Florida Bar. The Bar in turn regulates the profession and recommends disciplinary action for attorneys who violate the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar. The Florida Supreme Court must actually impose the discipline on attorneys, which can range from an admonishment to disbarment.
II. APPELLATE COURTS
A. The Supreme Court:
There are seven justices of the Supreme Court of Florida. Five justices are necessary for a quorum, and four justices must concur for there to be a decision of this court. Thus, the Supreme Court cannot take any action until at least four members agree to the decision and at least five members participate. When a recusal is made, judges assigned to temporary duty may be substituted for justices by order of the Chief Justice if there is a need. Judges serving in temporary duty are called "Associate Justices" of the Court, and always are chosen when needed from among the chief judges of the district courts of appeal on a rotating basis beginning with the First District through the Fifth District, and repeating continuously. The actual members of the Supreme Court are called simply "Justices," except for the "Chief Justice."
The Supreme Court must hear appeals from final judgments of trial courts imposing the death penalty and from orders of the trial court in bond validation proceedings, district court of appeal decisions declaring invalid a state statute or a provision of the State Constitution, and public service commission rulings on electric, gas, or telephone rates or service.
The Supreme Court may review any decision of a district court of appeal that expressly affects a class of state officials, expressly declares a state statute valid, expressly construes a provision of the state or federal constitution, expressly and directly conflicts with a decision of another Florida district court of appeal, or is certified by a district court to pass on a question of great public importance or to be in direct conflict with a decision of any other district court of appeal. In addition, the Supreme Court may hear other matters on a discretionary basis and issue writs of prohibition, mandamus, quo warranto, habeas corpus, and all writs necessary to the complete exercise of its jurisdiction.
The Supreme Court relies heavily on special commissions and committees to advise it about matters related to statewide court governance and administration.
As of July 1, 2009, the salaries of all Justices including the Chief Justice were reduced from $161,200 to $157,976, a two percent cut.
B. District Courts of Appeal:
Five district courts of appeal have been established. The number of appellate judges in each district, as of January 2, 2007, will be as follows:
The number of judges is set by law. A map of the District Courts is at the link provided below:
The district courts of appeal are composed of the following judicial circuits:
1. The First District Court of Appeal is composed of the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Judicial Circuits. This is roughly the North Florida area and includes Pensacola, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, and Gainesville.
2. The Second District Court of Appeal is composed of the Sixth, Tenth, Twelfth, Thirteenth, and Twentieth Judicial Circuits. This is roughly the West Central Florida area and includes Tampa, St. Petersburg, Lakeland, Sarasota, Fort Myers, and Naples.
3. The Third District Court of Appeal is composed of the Eleventh, and Sixteenth Judicial Circuits. This is Miami-Dade and Monroe counties and includes Miami and the Keys.
4. The Fourth District Court of Appeal is composed of the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Judicial Circuits. This is Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Okeechobee, and Indian River counties. It includes Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
5. The Fifth District Court of Appeal is composed of the Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eighteenth Judicial Circuits. This is roughly the East Central Florida area and includes Orlando, Ocala, Daytona Beach, St. Augustine, and Melbourne.
A panel of three judges considers each case and two judges must concur to render a decision. The district courts of appeal have jurisdiction to hear appeals that may be taken as a matter of right from final judgments or orders of trial courts, not directly appealable to the Supreme Court or a circuit court. This can include murder cases in which a sentence less than death is imposed, because the Supreme Court only has exclusive jurisdiction over cases involving an actual death sentence. The district courts of appeal have the power of the direct review of administrative action. The district courts of appeal may issue writs of habeas corpus, mandamus, certiorari, prohibition, quo warranto, and other writs necessary to the complete exercise of its jurisdiction.
As of July 1, 2009, the salaries of all judges of the district courts including the chief judges were reduced from $153,140 to $150,077, a two percent cut.
III. TRIAL COURTS
The number of judicial circuits and the number of circuit judges and county judges as of January 2009, are as follows:
The number of judges is set by law.
A. Judicial Circuits: County Breakdown.
A map of the circuit courts is provided at the link below:
1. The First Circuit is composed of Escambia, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, and Walton counties.
2. The Second Circuit is composed of Leon, Gadsden, Jefferson, Wakulla, Liberty, and Franklin counties.
3. The Third Circuit is composed of Columbia, Dixie, Hamilton, Lafayette, Madison, Suwannee, and Taylor counties.
4. The Fourth Circuit is composed of Clay, Duval, and Nassau counties.
5. The Fifth Circuit is composed of Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion, and Sumter counties.
6. The Sixth Circuit is composed of Pasco and Pinellas counties.
7. The Seventh Circuit is composed of Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns, and Volusia counties.
8. The Eighth Circuit is composed of Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Gilchrist, Levy, and Union counties.
9. The Ninth Circuit is composed of Orange and Osceola counties.
10. The Tenth Circuit is composed of Hardee, Highlands, and Polk counties.
11. The Eleventh Circuit is composed of Dade County.
12. The Twelfth Circuit is composed of DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties.
13. The Thirteenth Circuit is composed of Hillsborough County.
14. The Fourteenth Circuit is composed of Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington counties.
15. The Fifteenth Circuit is composed of Palm Beach County.
16. The Sixteenth Circuit is composed of Monroe County.
17. The Seventeenth Circuit is composed of Broward County.
18. The Eighteenth Circuit is composed of Brevard and Seminole counties.
19. The Nineteenth Circuit is composed of Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee, and St. Lucie counties.
20. The Twentieth Circuit is composed of Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, and Lee counties.
B. Circuit Courts.
Jurisdiction The circuit courts constitute Florida’s trial courts of general jurisdiction. These courts have exclusive original jurisdiction in all actions at law in which the matter in controversy exceeds $15,000, exclusive of interest and costs, for causes of action accruing after July 1, 1992; in proceedings relating to probate, domestic relations, juveniles, criminal felonies, and competency; and all cases in equity. Circuit courts also decide appeals from county court rulings and administrative bodies of local governments.
As of July 1, 2009, the salaries of all circuit judges including the chief judges were reduced from $145,080 to $142,178, a two percent cut.
C. County Courts.
Jurisdiction The county courts are Florida’s trial courts of limited jurisdiction with general jurisdiction over actions at law in which the matter in controversy does not exceed $15,000 for causes of action accruing after July 1, 1992. County courts have jurisdiction over criminal traffic cases, small claims, most landlord and tenant actions, misdemeanor criminal cases, violations of county and municipal ordinances, and simplified or uncontested dissolution cases.
As of July 1, 2009, the salaries of all county judges were reduced from $137,020 to $134,280, a two percent cut.
D. Branch Courts.
Any municipality or county may apply to the chief judge of the circuit in which that municipality or county is situated for the county court to sit in a location suitable to the municipality or county and convenient in time and place to its citizens and police officers, and upon such application the chief judge shall direct the court to sit in the location unless he shall determine the request is not justified. If the chief judge does not authorize the county court to sit in the location requested, the county or municipality may apply to the Supreme Court for an order directing the county court to sit in the location. Any municipality or county which so applies shall be required to provide the appropriate physical facilities in which the county court may hold court.
E. Civil Traffic Infraction Hearing Officers.
An amendment to Article V, Sec. 1 authorizes establishment of civil traffic hearing officers to preside over civil traffic infractions. In 1989, the Legislature designated specified noncriminal traffic infractions, established procedures for infractions processing, and authorized the adjudication of traffic infractions by civil traffic hearing officers. Pursuant to statutory authorization, the Florida Supreme Court adopted rules for practice and procedure for the civil traffic infraction hearing officer program. All counties are eligible for the program. The hearing officers are subject to the Code of Judicial Conduct with some exceptions. The hearing officers have powers analogous to a county judge’s powers regarding traffic infractions, with some limitations. Appeals from hearing officer decisions are to the circuit court but are not de novo (or not a new hearing).
IV. OFFICE OF THE STATE COURTS ADMINISTRATOR.
The Office of the State Courts Administrator (OSCA) was created in 1972 as the arm of the Supreme Court designated to assist the chief justice as chief administrative officer of the State Courts System. The OSCA serves as the principle point of contact for communication between the judicial branch, the legislature, the governor and state agencies. The OSCA is also responsible for gathering, analyzing, and reporting statistical information on the caseloads of state courts, followed closely by research, planning, and policy development functions at the branch level usually in coordination with judicial committees. This office oversees the preparation of state court system budgets and provides other financial administration for state funds. Additionally, the OSCA provides the administrative services of personnel, payroll, human services, and some contracting and procurement. Continuing education for judges is another key role of the OSCA in supporting an effective judiciary.
A. Budget Services: The purpose of the OSCA Budget Services office is to develop budget requests and implement operating budgets for the Florida Judicial Branch. The Budget Services office provides court managers with budget information that is necessary for prudent financial decisions and serves as a liaison on technical budget matters between the courts and the other branches of government. The office helps ensure that the State Courts System fulfills the constitutional and statutory mandates relating to budgeting (see Article III, section 19(h), Constitution of the State of Florida, and Chapter 216, Florida Statutes). Major functions and tasks include:
B. Strategic Planning: The purpose of the OSCA Office of Strategic Planning is to enable the Florida Judicial Branch to analyze and assess its policies and resource needs, formulate an performance and accountability program that is appropriate to the court environment, and assist the court system in identifying and preparing to meet future challenges. This activity ensures that the State Courts System fulfills the constitutional and statutory mandates relating to planning (see Article III, section 19(h), Constitution of the State of Florida, and Chapter 216, Florida Statutes). Major functions and tasks include:
C. Finance and Accounting: The purpose of the OSCA Office of Finance and Accounting is to manage the State Courts Systems finances in accordance with applicable statutes, laws, rules, policies and procedures, generally accepted accounting principles, and requirements of the Governmental Accounting Standards Board. In order for the Florida Judicial Branch to perform its constitutional and legislative mandates, as well as fulfill its mission and goals, it must maintain a statewide accounting system that supports an effective and efficient infrastructure for the courts. Major functions and tasks include:
D. General Services: The OSCA General Services office is involved with the purchase of goods and services for the Florida Supreme Court, district courts of appeal, and trial courts. Procurement policy direction and oversight is provided to court administration personnel at the trial court and appellate court levels. This includes the review of purchase requisitions to ensure compliance with court purchasing policies and state law. General Services is also involved with grant management, the purpose of which is to oversee the administration of grants, grants-in-aid, and contracts involving the trial and appellate courts, county commissions, and private vendors. Major functions and tasks include:
E. Personnel Services: The purpose of the OSCA Office of Personnel Services is to develop and administer all functions of the Florida State Courts Systems uniform personnel system. A quality work force is the most important resource of any organization. In order for the State Courts System to perform its constitutional and legislative mandates, as well as fulfill its mission and goals, it must be able to attract, recruit, and retain a high quality work force. Major functions and tasks include:
F. Court Services: The purpose of the OSCA Office of Court Services is to provide research and evaluation support services to all components of the Florida State Courts System, including technical assistance and monitoring of court programs; research; data analysis; and staff support of court committees that effectuate policy for critical activities of the Judicial Branch. Major functions and tasks include:
G. Information Systems Services: Evolving computer-assisted information management and communications technologies offer substantial opportunities for the Florida State Courts System to improve its efficiency, effectiveness, and accessibility. The purpose of the OSCA Office of Information Systems Services is to assist the Florida courts in maximizing these advancing technologies through planning, organizing, directing, and coordinating information technology. Major functions and tasks include:
H. Court Education: Floridians deserve a court system staffed with highly competent, skilled judges and administrators. The purpose of OSCA Court Education is to provide judges and court personnel with education and training programs that enhance their knowledge, skills, and expertise, and prepare them to administer justice fairly, effectively, and in a professional and competent manner. Continuing judicial education is mandatory in Florida. Florida's Court Education Program provides a comprehensive education and training program to new and experienced judges. Common to all judicial education program areas is the focus on ethical conduct, competency, good judicial practice, and the fair and impartial administration of justice under the rule of law. Major functions and tasks include:
I. Legal Affairs: The purpose of the OSCA Legal Affairs office is to assist the Florida State Courts System in complying with applicable state and federal laws and regulations, and to provide legal support for various court programs and court improvement initiatives. Major functions and tasks include:
J. Court Improvement: The OSCA Office of Court Improvement conducts research and analysis of various court processes, designs data-supported solutions and professional development initiatives for judges and support staff, and aids in the implementation of meaningful reforms to enhance access to justice and promote public trust and confidence in the judicial branch. Current projects involve unified family courts, dependency court improvement, delinquency court improvement, child support enforcement, domestic violence, transition of the guardian ad litem program, and treatment-based drug courts. Major functions and tasks include:
K. Dispute Resolution Center: Ensuring that court-related professionals are properly qualified contributes to a process that is fair for litigants, victims, and witnesses, and helps maintain the overall high standards of the Florida justice system. The primary purposes of the OSCA Dispute Resolution Center are to ensure that mediators who provide services that impact on the adjudicatory process have the appropriate qualifications and training; to regulate and discipline certified mediators; and to expand the range of dispute resolution options available in Florida. Major functions and tasks include:
L. Community and Inter-governmental Relations: The purpose of the OSCA Office of Community and Intergovernmental Relations is to provide a central point of contact for information regarding the State Courts System. The courts are an independent branch of state government, but operate interdependently with the legislative and executive branches to provide optimum government service to the people of Florida. Open lines of communication among the branches allows them to better serve the people. Additionally, effective two-way communication between the State Courts System and the public it serves is essential in building public trust and confidence in the courts. Major functions and tasks include:
Authored by the Media & Communications Law Committee, the handbook serves as a resource guide for members of the media about topics in the legal profession.