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County courts could see changes

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A Senate panel Tuesday approved a bill that would lead to higher-dollar cases being heard in county courts instead of circuit courts.

The bill (SB 328), filed by Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would change a limit that took effect in 1992. Under that limit, county courts hear civil cases that involve disputes up to $15,000, while circuit courts hear higher-dollar cases.

The bill, approved Tuesday by Brandes’ panel, would increase that threshold to $30,000 for cases filed starting Jan. 1 and $50,000 for cases filed starting in 2022.

“This is a very important issue,” Brandes said. “The county courts are really designed to be the people’s courts.”

The House Judiciary Committee was scheduled later Tuesday to consider a similar bill (HB 337).

William Large, president of the business-backed Florida Justice Reform Institute, expressed opposition to the Senate bill because of concerns about appeals of county-court decisions. Such appeals are heard by circuit judges.

Large said he is concerned that the threshold change could lead to circuit judges being forced to handle more appeals from county courts, increasing their workload. He argued that appeals should be heard by district courts of appeal, which handle cases coming out of circuit courts.

“I want everything to go to the DCA,” Large said.