In the 1970s, Florida began a process of streamlining the state's court system, abolishing many courts of limited jurisdiction at the municipal level.
Florida's county courts are where many legal claims begin. There are 67 county courts across the state, handling traffic offenses, misdemeanors, and small claims issues under $500. This is also where individuals may file civil suits that concern damages of less than $15,000, such as landlord-tenant disputes. County court matters are often handled by an individual judge and no jury.
In fiscal year 2015 there were almost 2.6 million cases before the Florida county courts, including about 1.9 million civil cases and over 625,000 criminal cases. There are 322 judges on the county court bench.
There are 20 circuit courts in Florida – most covering several counties -- which are the general trial courts for the state. Felony charges, divorces and custody issues, and civil cases concerning more than $15,000 are heard here. County court cases that are appealed are also heard in circuit courts.
Circuit court judges are elected to the bench by voters for 10-year terms. There are almost 600 judges on this court.
Probate cases are handled in circuit courts. This is when a person dies, leaving property or bank accounts or other assets without naming a legal beneficiary. The process of claiming such accounts or property ownership begins here.
Juvenile cases are also handled by a special division of circuit court. Here, court officers may recommend first-time or misdemeanor cases for diversion programs to avoid a court appearance. Frequent offenders or juveniles accused of more serious crimes may be ordered to appear in adult court.
The family court division of which juvenile court is a part had about 284,000 cases filed in fiscal year 2015, including about 44,000 juvenile delinquency cases and 55,000 domestic violence cases. Almost 100,000 cases were divorces.
In fiscal year 2015 there were over 750,000 cases filed (in total) at the circuit court level. Of those, about 171,000 were criminal matters and 181,000 were civil; 284,000 were in family court (including juvenile cases), and 115,000 were probate.
Courts of appeal are arranged by district in Florida. There are five appellate districts that each have jurisdiction over multiple state circuit (trial) courts. Appeals courts allow those who believe a lower court ruling was in error to have their trial reheard. Appeals courts do not use juries but are conducted by panels of (usually) three judges who consider the court record and take oral arguments from both sides. Districts each have between 11 and 15 judges, who are nominated by a committee and appointed by the governor, but who must run for reelection after each six year term.
Decisions made by appellate courts are not automatically binding in lower courts across the state; they may be cited by courts elsewhere but are only binding in the circuit courts within their immediate jurisdiction.
Seven judges are appointed to this court by a nominating committee that forwards candidates for the governor's approval, but after a probationary period the judges must run for reelection every six years. The court's history includes a period in the 1970s when justices resigned in a corruption scandal.
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the state, which has jurisdiction over several specific issues including state commission decisions, the state bar, automatic review of death penalty cases, and optional review of cases decided in lower courts.
In calendar year 2015, there were 96 cases on the court's docket that were "'mandatory review" cases, including 56 death penalty cases, 31 questions of legal constitutionality, and nine public service commission issues. Another 1,353 original cases were added to the 2,413 cases pending at the opening of the court's session. Records show 2,346 cases disposed during the same period.
The Supreme Court of Florida disbarred six attorneys and punished 26 more in early 2016 for a variety of reasons. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over the state bar, including attorney misconduct. There are over 103,000 attorneys registered to practice law in Florida. The complaints against the attorneys who were punished included misappropriation of client funds, lying to a client that a case was dismissed in federal court, and failing to respond to a bar inquiry complaint.
The U.S. Supreme Court dealt Florida courts a blow in 2016 when a death row inmate's appeal caused the court to examine the way death penalty cases are handled in Florida. The case the court examined consisted of a man who was sentenced to the death penalty twice for the same murder. The result was that the U.S. Supreme Court decided in January 2016 that Florida's courts are sentencing alleged criminals unconstitutionally. Rather than a judge handing down the sentence, the state should have at least 10 jurors hearing the case and agreeing on the penalty, the justices said. Now the man's attorney wants his sentence commuted to life in prison, but the implications go much further, potentially affecting all of the 400 inmates on Death Row. While some argue that all death penalty cases should be commuted to life in prison, the Florida Supreme Court must find a remedy for the error in sentencing procedure.