A circuit court judge must be an attorney for five years, in good standing with The Florida Bar, an elector (resident) of the circuit where he or she is to serve, and is usually elected by the public to serve a six year term. A circuit court judge may be re-elected.

Circuit court judges may be elected to an open seat or appointed by the Governor in circumstances when the judicial vacancy occurs on a date other than at the expiration of the current (retiring or resigning) judge’s term. When there is an election for an open seat, the judge is elected for a six year term. When there is an appointment by the Governor, the judge is up for re-election within the first two years after the appointment. During any such election referenced above, lawyers may run against the trial court judge. If the judge receives no opposition, then the judge commences a new six year term on the January following the election cycle.

Circuit Judges hear cases involving felony criminal offenses (which are punishable by fines and/or prison of at least 1 year and 1 day), matters involving the property of a person who has died (probate); guardianships; juvenile matters for those under age 18; civil cases where the amount claimed is more than $15,000; divorces; most actions involving real estate; and appeals from most county court decisions and from final orders of local government code enforcement boards.  § 26.012, Fla. Stat.

A county court judge must be an attorney for five years (except if the population is less than 40,000 in that county) in good standing with The Florida Bar, an elector (resident) of the county where he or she is to serve, and is usually elected by the public to serve a six-year term. A county court judge may be re-elected.

County court judges may be elected to an open seat or appointed by the Governor in circumstances when the judicial vacancy occurs on a date other than at the expiration of the current (retiring or resigning) judge’s term. When there is an election for an open seat, the judge is elected for a six year term. When there is an appointment by the Governor, the judge is up for re-election within the first two years after the appointment. During any such election referenced above, lawyers may run against the trial court judge. If the judge receives no opposition, then the judge commences a new six year term on the January following the election cycle.

County Judges hear cases involving misdemeanor criminal offenses (which are punishable by fines and/or county jail up to one year), traffic offenses, and civil cases where the amount claimed is under $15,000.  Disputes under $5,000 are handled in the small claims division of the county court.§ 34.01, Fla. Stat.

Hearing Officers are appointed to hear Family Division cases dealing with family support issues. The Findings and Recommendations entered by the Hearing Officer have the same force and effect as Orders entered by a Circuit Judge.

Cases that are heard by a Hearing Officer include the establishment, enforcement, and modification of child support, alimony connected to on-going child support, and uncontested paternity issues. These cases can be Title IV-D (Department of revenue/Child Support Enforcement) cases, or private cases with or without an attorney. There is no requirement that a special Order of Referral must be issued for a case to be heard by the Hearing Officer. A litigant cannot object to a Hearing Officer hearing an IV-D or Non IV-D case dealing with child support.

After a Hearing Officer enters the Findings and Recommendations, the Circuit Judge signs the Order immediately. There is no waiting period. If a litigant wishes to contest the Hearing Officer's findings, a Motion to Vacate must be filed within ten (10) days after the Judge enters the Order approving the Hearing Officer's findings. The party filing the Motion to Vacate must obtain a copy of the digital recording of the hearing and have it transcribed by an approved court reporter or transcriptionist. The transcript must then be filed with the Court.

After the hearing on the Motion to Vacate, if the Judge determines that the motion is unfounded, the original Order will stand. If not, the Judge may either enter his or her own Order based on the evidence, or refer the case back to the Hearing Officer for a re-hearing.

Magistrates are appointed to hear Family Division cases dealing with a variety of family issues. The issues include the establishment, enforcement, and modification of child support and alimony, dissolution of marriage, parental responsibility and time-sharing issues, property rights, debts, attorney's fees, contested paternity matters, Baker Acts, post judgment proceedings, and any other issue the Court refers to the Magistrate. The Magistrate can hear child support issues (just like a Hearing Officer) without an Order of Referral. The Magistrate also hears non-child support matters only after the Court enters an Order of Referral to the Magistrate.

The procedure for non-child support matters is:

  1. Each party has ten (10) days to file an objection to the referral.
  2. If no objection is filed, the case is set before the Magistrate and a notice of the hearing is mailed to the parties.
  3. If an objection is timely filed, the case is set before the Circuit Judge.

Because the court docket (calendar) is so crowded, the Judges prefer to refer temporary and post judgment issues to the Magistrates.

After the hearing, a Magistrate’s Decision and Recommended Order will be issued that includes findings of fact, conclusions of law and a recommended Order. This recommended Order will be sent to the parties and to the Circuit Judge. The Judge will wait ten (10) days from the date of the recommended Order before entering an Order confirming the Magistrate’s Decision and Recommended Order. In the alternative, both parties may waive the ten-day exception period and consent to the court’s immediate entry of the Magistrate’s recommended Order.

If a party desires to contest the findings, he or she must file an exception to the Magistrate’s Decision and Recommended Order within the ten days. The party filing exceptions is required to send copies of the exceptions directly to the Judge assigned to the case, as well as to the magistrate. Additionally, the party filing exceptions must obtain a copy of the digital recording of the hearing and have it transcribed by an approved court reporter or transcriptionist. The transcript must then be filed with the Court.  Failure to provide the transcript may result in the denial of the exceptions.

If exceptions to the Magistrate's Decision and Recommended Order are filed, the Court must hold a hearing on the exceptions. This hearing is similar to that of the Appellate Court; it is not a re-hearing. If the Circuit Judge determines that the exceptions are unfounded, the Judge will sign the Order approving the Magistrate's Decision and Recommended Order. If the Circuit Judge finds that the exceptions are valid, the case will be referred back to the Magistrate for a re-hearing.

For more information regarding Hearing Officers and Magistrates, see Florida Family Law rules of Procedures sections 12.490 and 12.491.