Understanding the Judicial Branch

Florida’s state government, like our national government, is composed of three branches: Judicial, Executive, and Legislative.

Article V of Florida’s Constitution established the Judicial Branch, which is composed of trial and appellate courts.

TRIAL COURTS

The majority of jury trials in Florida take place before one judge sitting as judge of the circuit court. The circuit courts are sometimes referred to as courts of general jurisdiction, in recognition of the fact that most criminal and civil cases originate at this level.

There are two tiers of trial courts: 67 county courts and 20 circuit courts.

APPELLATE COURTS

The purpose of Florida’s District Courts of Appeal is to provide the opportunity for thoughtful review of decisions of lower tribunals by multi-judge panels. District Courts of Appeal correct harmful errors and ensure that decisions are consistent with our rights and liberties. This process contributes to the development, clarity, and consistency of the law.

There are also two tiers of appellate courts: the five District Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Florida.

Difference Between Trial Courts & Appellate Courts

Trial Courts

Appellate Courts

  • one judge
  • jury
  • lawyers present evidence & witnesses
  • most cases begin in trial courts
  • more than one judge
  • no jury
  • focus on matters of law
  • do not rehear/retry the case

Things you may see in a trial courtroom: One (1) judge, a jury, witnesses, lawyers, prosecutor, a defense attorney, defendant or parties to the case, clerk, court reporter, bailiff (security officer). 

Click image to view PDF 

Things you may see in an appellate courtroom: multiple judges, a clerk, court security officers, lawyers. 

Click image to view PDF 

Understanding the difference between trial courts and appellate courts

Florida's judges by county, circuit, District Court of Appeal and Florida Supreme Court

Trial courts are the courts where cases start. In the trial court, both sides present evidence to show their version of what happened. Most of the evidence presented in the trial court comes from witnesses (people who answer questions relating to the case) and exhibits (items and documents connected to the case, such as pictures, clothes, weapons, papers, etc.). However, in the appellate courts, there are no witnesses, and no evidence is presented. In appellate courts, the lawyers simply argue legal and policy issues before the judge or a group of judges. In the trial courts, the lawyers present evidence and legal arguments to persuade the jury in a jury trial or the judge in a bench trial.

The second difference between the two courts is the number of judges. In trial courts, there is one judge in the courtroom. That judge decides what evidence can and cannot be used and often decides the outcome of the case. In Florida, appeals are decided by more than one judge. In each District Court of Appeal where, cases are heard in groups of three judges, and in the Supreme Court, there is one group of seven justices

The last major difference between the trial courts and the appellate courts is the role of the jury. A jury is a group of citizens who listen to the facts and make decisions about the case. A jury is sometimes used in trial courts to help decide the case. In a criminal trial, the jury decides whether a person is guilty or not guilty.

The biggest misunderstanding about the appellate courts is that they simply rehear or retry the case over again. But the truth is that appellate courts do not rehear the facts of the case. Appellate courts focus on questions of law, NOT on questions of facts like the trial courts. The appellate judges want to know whether the law was applied accurately.

The appellate court overrules a trial court decision only if a very important legal error was made in the trial court. In some cases, the appellate court judges might believe that the outcome of the trial court should have been different, but if no legal errors were made, they will not overrule the lower court. The appellate judges make their decisions based only on legal arguments of how the law should be applied and interpreted.

Understanding the difference between criminal v. civil cases

A criminal trial involves the government (the state of Florida, for example) bringing charges against someone who committed a crime, such as a robbery, murder, or drunk driving.

In a civil trial, the jury decides whether a person is liable (legally responsible for damages) or not liable (not responsible). Individuals or companies who cannot settle a dispute file a document called a complaint to start a civil trial. Divorce, car accidents, and traffic violations are some of the most common types of civil cases.

There can be a jury in either a civil or criminal trial. However, there is no jury in the appellate courts. Appellate judges determine the outcome of all appeals.

DOWNLOADABLE GRAPHICS

Graphics can be downloaded using "Save As" or click the image for a PDF version.

TRIAL COURT JUDICIAL CIRCUITS IN FLORIDA (20)

DISTRICT COURTS OF APPEAL IN FLORIDA (5)

This graphic displays the current county and circuit courts in Florida

This graphic explains how the District Courts of Appeal are divided in Florida