On January 1, 2023, Florida reorganized the appellate courts and created new Sixth District Court of Appeal (DCA) headquartered in Lakeland. This is Florida’s first new appellate court since the seventies.
The boundaries of the Third and Fourth Districts in south Florida will remain the same. However, the boundaries of the First, Second, and Fifth District Courts of Appeal will be changed to create the new Sixth District Court of Appeal.
Moving into the Sixth DCA are the counties of Hardee, Highlands, Polk, Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee, Orange, Osceola. Another big change is that the First DCA will no longer handle cases from Clay, Duval, and Nassau; those counties will shift to the Fifth District Court of Appeal.
Obviously, the new court will be bound by the decisions of the Florida Supreme Court. But there is no Sixth District Court of Appeal precedent. What happens when a new court is established, and there is no precedent because the court is brand new? The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In 1992, the Florida Supreme Court gave us the decision of Pardo v. State. In that case, the Florida Supreme Court made clear that the law of the Districts binds all trial courts, unless there is a conflict in the decisions of the Districts. A trial court is always bound to follow its District Court of Appeal which is a higher courts. However, if the only case on point on a district level is from a district other than the one in which the trial court is located, the trial court is required to follow that decision. Between District Courts of Appeal, a sister district’s opinion is merely persuasive.
Pursuant to Pardo, a trial court must follow any decision of first impression by any one of Florida’s District Courts of Appeal. What does this mean for trial courts moving into the Sixth District? If there is a matter of first impression, on which the Florida Supreme Court has not ruled, a decision from one of the other five District Courts of Appeal will be binding, absent an inter-district conflict. If there is a conflict, and no law of the district where the trial court is located, then the lawyers will be excited to argue the point and the judges will decide. Will the trial courts rule with the District they formerly inhabited or will they prefer another ruling? What about all the cases transferred in Duval County that transferred from the First DCA to the Fifth DCA, which precedent do they follow? The answer is true for almost everything in litigation, ‘it depends’ on the judge, the location and the issue.
Litigants will be free to argue conflicts. The judges of the Sixth District do not have to follow other Districts and can make their own mark on the law, unless the Florida Supreme Court has already marked the area. This writer thinks the new court and its judges will move to make their mark. Until then, duck and argue for your best result!
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Pardo v. State, 596 So. 2d 665 (Fla. 1992)