The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

Florida’s Other Courts: Unconventional Justice in the Sunshine State

Book Reviews

Edited by Robert M. Jarvis

Cover of Florida's Other CourtsFlorida’s legal history is rich and varied due to the many nations and cultures that have stamped their imprint on the state. Florida’s Other Courts: Unconventional Justice in the Sunshine State offers concise and interesting essays surveying eight different types of courts that have dispensed justice in Florida.

This slim volume is well edited by Nova Southeastern Law Professor Robert Jarvis. Part I covers courts of general jurisdiction: Spanish courts, British courts, territorial courts, and Confederate courts. Part II covers courts of special jurisdiction: military courts, religious courts, black courts, and Native American courts.

Readers will learn about governmental courts that preceded our present systems. For example, although Florida was under Spanish control for nearly 300 years, details of Spanish judicial administration are scarce because records are scattered or unavailable. The essay on Spanish courts capably pulls together the available facts.

The British court system in Florida (1763-1783) was unlike the Spanish system in that colonial governors were executive and not judicial officers. Each colony had a chief justice. Grand juries and petit juries were commonly used.

The territorial period (1821-1845) involved land disputes left over from the Spanish period. Initially such disputes were not handled in the courts, but were decided by a special commission appointed by Congress.

Confederate courts in Florida operated under continual stress. Confederate district courts had concurrent jurisdiction with state courts, and there was no Confederate Supreme Court to settle disputes. Fighting kept state courts from processing civil and, especially, criminal cases. Interestingly, decisions of the Florida Supreme Court during the war continued to reflect the jurisprudence of the Union by citing the U.S. Supreme Court or courts of states that remained in the Union.

Three of the four specialty courts profiled in the book still operate today. The almost 100,000 Florida-related active duty and reserve military personnel may be subject to prosecution for criminal offenses in military courts. The military justice process is briefly explained, and differences from civilian courts are noted.

Religious courts potentially affect a large number of Floridians. A majority of the state’s adults belong to an identified religious faith, and the largest of these faith groups (Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish) operate religious courts. The First Amendment dictates that most matters of religious law and discipline be decided by a religious rather than secular tribunal.

The Negro Municipal Court (NMC), established in Miami in 1950, was the only exclusively black court established in this country. Black professionals in Miami called for it as a response to the treatment that black defendants often received in state courts. The NMC proved to be controversial. Hailed by some as a positive tool for self-government in a community surrounded by a segregated society, it was challenged by the NAACP as a step backward in the fight for equal rights. The NMC closed in 1963 when city facilities were ordered desegregated.

The two Florida-based tribes recognized by the U.S. government are the Seminole (4,000 members) and the Miccosukee (600 members) tribes. Tribal court systems and the law they apply are heavily dependent on oral information and traditions. The two tribal courts differ in some respects.

The Seminole court is more open, with its codes, rules, forms, and other litigation aids freely available on the internet. The Miccosukee court is more guarded and does not release much information in writing.

This informative book includes a case index and a detailed general index. Extensive endnotes provide interesting background for the casual reader and excellent sources for the scholarly reader. At 222 pages, this book is a valuable addition to Florida’s legal history.

Timothy P. Chinaris is a professor of law and associate dean of academic affairs at Belmont University College of Law in Nashville, Tennessee.


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