The World of the Local Court

By F. Shields McManus

The courts of our community are a world apart from the daily life of most people and even many lawyers.  Courtrooms are open to the public but few ever go into one unless they are involved in a case.  And much of what goes on does not happen in a courtroom at all. 

When I practiced law, I was focused on my clients’ matters and oblivious to what was going on daily in the courts.  Civil lawsuits made up most of my practice and I was only concerned with getting my cases settled or tried by a jury.  Like many civil law practitioners I was unaware of the many other types of legal matters passing through the local courthouse.  In my legal provincialism I wondered why there were so many judges, but only one or two assigned to the kind of cases I handled, which to me were the most important kind of cases.

When I became a circuit court judge, I encountered not only areas of law formerly unknown to me, but populations of litigants with which I was unacquainted.  Also I was introduced to people other than lawyers and judges engaged in helping these people.

A Brief Civics Lesson

In any American community, there are state courts and federal courts which have jurisdiction.  In the state courts of Florida, there are two kinds of trial courts: “County Courts” and “Circuit Courts”.  County Courts primarily handle criminal misdemeanor and traffic cases, evictions, and legal claims for money less than $15,000.  Circuit Courts handle everything else.  This includes criminal felony cases, family law court for cases such as divorce and paternity,  juvenile delinquency court, juvenile dependency court which is for protection of abused, abandoned, or neglected children, probate and guardianship court, mental health and substance abuse, and civil lawsuits including injury claims, contract disputes, debt collection and mortgage foreclosures.

So we can see there are a many different kinds of matters being heard in our local courts.  There are also a large number of cases.

The Numbers[1]

For the fiscal year 2012-2013, the most recent data available, in the Nineteenth Circuit of Florida (Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee, and St. Lucie Counties) case filings and reopenings were:

Circuit Court                                     Filings             Reopenings

Felony                                                5,171              6,380

Family                                                6,583               6,184

Juvenile Delinquency                     1966               4,099

Juvenile Dependency                       438               2,026

Probate/ Guardianship                 2,593               1,478

Mental Health/Drugs                    1,548                  N/A[2]

Civil Lawsuits                                   2,901               3,564[3]

Foreclosures                                    6,216

County Court                                Filings               Reopenings

Misdemeanor                               19,486               3,808

Evictions                                           3,249              2,808[4]

Traffic                                            34,689

County Civil                                     5,249

Foreclosures, as we all are aware, increased immensely during the Great Recession.  As of June 2012 in all of Florida, there were 377,707 pending foreclosure cases. In the Treasure Coast and Okeechobee there were pending 13,699 cases.  With the assistance of retired judges and additional magistrates, the numbers of pending cases as of September 2014 were reduced to 134,824 and 3,715 respectively.  Nevertheless, these cases continue to take up a lot of the civil court judges’ time.

The People

As the above statistics show, the local courtrooms are occupied primarily with persons accused of committing crimes and by adults and children experiencing significant life dysfunctions. Most of them are poor. The courts provide some intervention when these people have crises, but their daily existence depends on help from family and friends, as well as government, non-profit agencies, and volunteers. 

What becomes real to anyone serving in the court system is how many people live on the edge of existence.  For example, the young woman who serves our meal at a restaurant or waits on us at a super store is likely to be a parent of minor children.  She is often divorced or unmarried.  She may not live with the child’s father.  Often he has not reliably paid child support.  She has no insurance for herself but her children have Medicaid. Her children are in extended day care at the school or the Boys and Girls Club at reduced cost to her.

The taxpayers, donors, and volunteers make it possible for her to survive on her modest earnings. In effect they are underwriting the cost of labor for a business paying her low wages.  She is also a taxpayer.  She pays sales tax and gasoline taxes.  Her rent pays the real estate taxes on the rental unit.  If she has cable TV or a cell phone, she pays use taxes.  Social Security and Medicare taxes are taken out of her pay.  She has no savings for emergencies.  Any unexpected expense becomes a crisis. She already has bills she cannot pay. She may be late on her rent and could be sued for eviction at any time.

If she needs to go to family court or civil court, she cannot afford a lawyer.  If she is unable to get assistance from her family or a volunteer lawyer, she will have to go without a lawyer.

This woman may become emotionally unstable or fall into substance abuse. She may become a candidate for mental health or drug court. Her children may become abused by her boyfriend. The Department of Children and Families may be notified and file a petition in Dependency Court.  If her child gets into some illegal behavior he or she will be arrested and charged in juvenile court.

The small business person and the international corporation also are frequent users of the local courts.  For example, the local businessman needs to collect payment for his services and products.  He may file a small claim in County Court or foreclose a mechanic’s lien in Circuit Court.  The individual real estate investor may need the court to resolve a dispute over a real estate transaction.  The banks and other lenders also depend on the courts to collect payment on loans in default and to foreclose on mortgages or financing agreements.

The Courts

Our local courts are busy daily responding to the needs of the people.  Hearings and trials are scheduled every week. But not all of this work takes place in the courtroom.  The judges spend much of their time reviewing the pleadings, briefs, and evidence submitted, reviewing the statutory and case law, writing orders, and scheduling hearings. Different types of cases have different work patterns.  Family law and criminal law judges will typically spend more time in trials and evidentiary hearings, while civil law and probate judges will spend more time reviewing files and hearing legal motions.

Each judge is provided with one staff person called a “Judicial Assistant” who answers the phone, handles the mail and email, prepares orders and correspondence, and keeps the judge’s calendar up to date.  Staff lawyers are available for special assignments such as reviewing and responding to convicted persons petitions for post-conviction relief, of which there are many. Individual judges, however, are not assigned a “law clerk” to assist in the daily case work. 

The staff of the office of the elected Clerk of the Court assists the judges by keeping the files in the Clerk’s office.  These files are now becoming digital as Florida has begun e-filing in most kinds of cases. The Clerk’s staff, known as Deputy Clerk’s, also create some records and prepare form orders in some types of courts such as criminal and juvenile courts. Whenever a judge is in the courtroom there is a Deputy Clerk keeping minutes about whatever is transpiring and taking care of any evidence and other papers presented to the court.  The Clerk’s office, however, is a separate constitutional office and does not work for the judge outside of court. The Deputy Clerk is not the judge’s secretary.  People are often unaware of this and they try to communicate with the judge through the Clerk’s office.

Conclusion

The world of the local courts is far more complex and diverse than people realize.  I have tried to give some insight into what the judges are routinely doing.  This may be helpful when you have occasion to interact with the court.


[1] Office of State Courts Administrator, Florida Supreme Court, flcourts.org

[2]  Not Available

[3]  All civil cases including foreclosures. The percentage of civil cases disposed of by jury trial is only 0.3%. 

[4]  All civil cases 

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