County court is the Little Engine That Could
Ask Judge Smith
By Layne Smith
Special to the Outlook
When I was a small child, my mother read me stories with morals, and one of my favorites was “The Little Engine That Could.” In the story, a determined little engine pulls a heavy-laden train up a mountain to deliver food and toys to children.
The lesson extols the values of optimism and work ethic. As it turns out, “The Little Engine That Could” is the perfect metaphor for your county court.
Like the hero of the story, your county court carries a heavy caseload. During fiscal year 2017-2018, 72 percent of the new cases opened in Leon County were filed in the county court. As a result, 32,778 cases were divided among your five county judges.
County judges’ criminal dockets cover misdemeanor cases, and their civil dockets cover:
1) Landlord-Tenant evictions;
3) Small claims involving $5,000 or less;
4) Civil claims between $5,000 and $15,000; and
5) Traffic infractions involving serious bodily injuries.
Most civil cases involve at least one person who represents himself without counsel. Because non-lawyers lack legal training and experience, judges must devote additional time to assure due process of law and decisions on the merits.
County judges preside over specialty courts, which include:
1) Veterans Treatment Court;
2) Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Court;
3) Mental Health Court; and
4) Drivers’ License Clinics.
Specialty courts address far reaching societal problems and require a significant investment of judicial time, which we alone provide.
Every day, county judges cover circuit court work too, including:
1) Felony first appearances and extraditions;
2) Felony search and arrest warrants;
3) Jury qualification;
4) Baker Act hearings to compel psychiatric treatment;
5) Marchman Act hearings to compel substance abuse treatment;
6) Risk Protection Order hearings to take firearms, ammunition and weapons from people threatening suicide or murder;
7) Family court adoptions, uncontested divorces and name changes; and
8) Injunction hearings to protect victims of domestic, repeat, sexual, or dating violence, or stalking.
Our handling of these circuit court duties enables the circuit judges to focus on their most serious, demanding and complicated cases, including ones with statewide implications.
Both Florida’s and Leon County’s populations are growing! As they increase, so too will the workloads assigned to your county judges.
Like “The Little Engine That Could,” your county court “thinks it can” and remains optimistic and hard-at-work.
Future columns will cover circuit and appellate courts and other constitutional officers.
J. Layne Smith is a Leon County Judge who often speaks and writes about civics, law and the administration of justice. Email your questions about civics or law to email@example.com.