On June 20, 2020, the Florida governor signed into law Senate Bill 1392, which, among other things, divests circuit courts of jurisdiction over appeals from county court orders or judgments. Come January 1, 2021, Florida’s circuit courts will no longer have jurisdiction over appeals from county court orders or judgments.
The bill amends section 26.012, Florida Statutes, which establishes the jurisdiction of circuit courts. The amendment eliminates the authority of the circuit courts over appeals from county courts in civil and criminal cases. However, circuit courts still retain jurisdiction to entertain appeals from final administrative orders of local code enforcement boards and to hear appeals and review other matters as provided by general law. Thus, by operation of Article V, section 4(b)(1) of the Florida Constitution, the Florida district courts of appeal will have jurisdiction over appeals from final orders of county courts in civil and criminal cases by default.
The bill also allows a county court to certify important questions to a district court of appeal in those final judgments that are still appealable to a circuit court. Thus, district courts of appeal have jurisdiction to review any order or judgment of a county court, which is certified by the county court to be of great public importance. One area of particular interest is whether the jurisdiction of the district courts will expand to encompass interlocutory appeals from non-final orders of county courts.
Also effective January 1, 2021, the bill repeals section 924.08, Florida Statues, which gives jurisdiction to circuit courts to hear appeals of judgments in misdemeanor cases.
For appellate practitioners these changes are welcome and much needed. Circuit courts do not have the resources and are not as well-equipped to act in an appellate capacity. While the larger circuit courts sitting in appellate capacity have three-judge panels, courts in less populous circuits often use panels that rotate every six months or so. This results in a loss of “institutional knowledge” and creates a greater risk of inconsistent results and unusually long times for final resolution of an appeal. But no matter how welcome, this jurisdictional shift leaves us wondering whether district courts will fare better handling an influx of appeals from county court orders or judgments, in addition to their usual workload. Will we experience a delay in the resolution of cases at the district court level? Will oral arguments be less frequently granted now that the number of cases will inevitably increase? One thing is sure: the consistency and timeliness of appellate decisions should fare better in district courts than in the circuit courts sitting in appellate capacity.
This legislative action is but the first step in this much-needed jurisdictional shift. Because the Florida Constitution divides the authority to define the appellate jurisdiction of the courts between the Supreme Court of Florida and the Legislature, expanding the appellate jurisdiction of the district courts while reducing the appellate jurisdiction of the circuit courts requires cooperation between the judiciary and the Legislature. Thus, the Florida Supreme Court must take the next step to complete this jurisdictional shift. This final step requires an amendment to the Florida Rules of Appellate Procedure. Such amendments are proposed by the Florida Bar Appellate Court Rules Committee and adopted by the Supreme Court of Florida, with or without changes. Thus, there is much more work to be done before January 1, 2021.