The State of Florida has a constitution much like the U.S. Constitution. The purpose of a constitution is to provide the framework for government, limit government authority, and protect the rights of the people. Though each state has its own constitution, the U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Florida’s first constitution was written in 1838, when Florida was a U.S. territory, during the process of becoming a state. Since then, it has been changed many times. Every twenty years, meetings are held to review the Florida Constitution and decide whether to change it. If there are recommendations, these are submitted to the people of Florida to vote on. The Florida Constitution was changed in 1865, 1868 (when Florida was re-admitted to the Union), 1885, 1968, and 1998. In 1998 the executive branch was reorganized.

Tallahassee is the capital of Florida. Just like local governments, the state government is responsible for providing many services, such as education, law enforcement, conservation of natural resources, public works, health departments, and other public services. Florida’s government mirrors the federal government; the state, too, has executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

FLORIDA'S EXECUTIVE BRANCH

The state executive branch consists of a governor, lieutenant governor, and three elected Cabinet members. The governor is the chief executive of the state and, along with the lieutenant governor, is elected by the public for a four-year term. Before 2003, the governor’s Cabinet included six members elected by the public. A change to the state Constitution reduced the number of Cabinet members to three: They are the attorney general, chief financial officer, and the commissioner of agriculture. These members are elected for a four-year term.(Benchmark: SS.7.C.3.8)

The Lieutenant Governor
The office of the lieutenant governor was created in 1865, abolished, and then re-established in 1968. The lieutenant governor assists the governor in the performance of his responsibilities, carries out specific duties directed by the governor, and is a member of the Cabinet. He or she assumes the governor’s position if it becomes vacant due to the death or impeachment of the governor.

FLORIDA'S LEGISLATIVE BRANCH

The state House of Representatives and the Senate make up Florida’s Legislature. Like the federal government does for the nation, these two governmental bodies create the laws for the state. The men and women who serve as representatives and senators must live in the areas they represent, called districts. Apportionment (number of members) of both houses of the state Legislature must be based on population. This means that the more people who live in your district, the more representatives and senators you are allowed. The residents of those districts elect their state government officials. Representatives are elected for two-year terms; senators serve a four-year term. One-half of the senators are elected every two years. Elections for representatives occur in even-numbered years. Every year, the legislature meets to decide issues affecting the state. The legislature is also responsible for state job appointments, raising or reducing state taxes, and controlling the state budget.

THE JUDICIAL BRANCH

The Florida Supreme Court
The judicial branch is the state’s court system. The powers and jurisdiction of the state and federal courts are derived from their respective constitutions. The Florida Supreme Court is the highest court in the state. Seven justices are appointed by the governor to serve on the Supreme Court bench. A chief justice is selected by a majority of the other justices. Every two years, the position is rotated. The chief justice serves as chief administrator of the judicial system. Of the justices, five are needed to constitute a quorum, and four must be in agreement to render a decision.
The Supreme Court hears all appeals, including judgments from trial courts that have imposed the death penalty, and decisions of district courts of appeal declaring a state statute or provisions of the state Constitution invalid. The court may also review any decision of the district courts of appeal. The Supreme Court is also responsible for granting permission for attorneys to practice and for the discipline of attorneys who violate standards of conduct. In addition to the Supreme Court, three other levels of courts constitute the judicial branch: the courts of appeal, with five districts; twenty circuit courts; and sixty-seven county courts. (Benchmark: SS.7.C.3.11)

DISTRICT COURTS OF APPEAL

These courts review most decisions by the lower trial courts. A panel of three judges makes up a district court of appeal. Appellate-court judges are appointed in the same manner as Supreme Court justices. In a district court of appeal, two judges must agree on a decision. Florida is divided into five appellate-court districts: Tallahassee, Lakeland, Daytona Beach, West Palm Beach, and Miami.
The district courts of appeal have jurisdiction over appeals from trial courts and over some rulings by county courts that are of great public importance. This court also can review actions taken by state agencies. The state constitution gives the appellate courts the authority to issue writs. The court’s decision is the final judgment for litigated cases appealed to this court, although those not satisfied may appeal to the state or federal Supreme Court.

CIRCUIT COURTS

The circuit courts have the most general jurisdiction in the state. There are twenty circuit courts in Florida. Each is presided over by a circuit judge. Voters of the jurisdictional area of the circuit court elect a circuit judge every six years. Circuit courts have jurisdiction over appeals from county courts. They also hear all felony cases, civil cases involving more than $15,000, and other cases not handled by county courts.

COUNTY COURTS

The state’s sixty-seven counties have their own county courts, in accordance with Florida’s constitution. Depending on the size of the county, there are one or more judges. County judges are elected by county residents and serve a term of four years. County courts have jurisdiction over small civil cases under $15,000, some misdemeanor cases, and violations of all county and municipal ordinances. County courts also rule in divorce cases.

Postcard view of 1916 County Courthouse. Courtesy Historical Society Palm Beach County

PAYING FOR GOVERNMENT

How is Florida’s government financially supported? It is supported through the collection of state taxes and fees. People pay taxes, which are used to pay for the state government and services. This might be in the form of a sales tax that is added to the price of items purchased. Certain items like gasoline and cigarettes have additional taxes. Tax money is used for such things as constructing and maintaining state buildings, state roads, and state educational facilities; and to pay state employees. Besides taxes, special fees are collected. These include fees for driver’s licenses and license plates, hunting and fishing licenses, and certification of some professions.

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