Sunday, July 21, 2024 - 12:08pm

A brief history of the 10th Judicial Circuit

Photo of old Polk County Courthouse Rotunda

The following is a brief summary of the history of the Tenth Judicial Circuit, prepared by Tom Muir, along with sketches of the past courthouses. The image above is a view from the rotunda of the Old Polk County Courthouse which now serves as the Polk County History Center. Attorneys and court personnel would often stand here between hearings to watch the people below. It is therefore a fitting perspective to introduce visitors to this section of our website.

First Courts

Sketch of the old Polk County Courthouse, circa 1867

During the Florida Territorial Period, 1821–1845, the federal government provided for Florida's judicial system. At the time there were only two counties, Escambia on the West and St. Johns on the East, each with a court comprised of five justices of the peace. In 1822 the US Congress divided Florida's two judicial districts at the Suwannee River. As our growing population required more services the system gradually expanded. In 1824 a Middle District was added, and a Southern District was added in 1828.

Florida's early law was administered by circuit riders, a tradition begun in 12th century England. The four circuit justices had to travel by horse or carriage to the major cities of the state; the hardship and expense of those travels discouraged many from seeking judgeships. For people in the far south of Florida, it was especially difficult as much travel was required by water.

State Courts

When Florida became a State the role of the federal government was diminished and the state courts followed the basic organization created during the Territorial Period with four circuit or superior court districts in place. Until 1850 Florida's highest court, the Supreme Court, constituted the judges of each district. In 1851, an act was passed that gave the Supreme Court a Chief Justice and two Associate Justices, separate from the circuit judges. The legislature selected a judge and solicitor for each of Florida's four superior or circuit courts.

Sketch of the Historic Polk Courthouse

In 1868, the circuit courts were briefly divided into seven judicial circuits. Polk became part of the sixth judicial circuit. In 1870 the number of circuits was reduced by legislative amendment to five. The Constitution of 1885 bumped the number of circuits back to seven, and in 1902 an eighth district was created.

A newly adopted constitutional amendment approved by a statewide vote in 1910 gave the legislature the authority to establish judicial circuits as it deemed advisable. And in 1911, the legislature established 11 circuit courts, with one judge assigned to each. Polk became part of the tenth judicial circuit.

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