Middle Circuit of Florida | 1845 - 1868

Upon Florida becoming a State of the Union in 1845, the Middle District became the Middle Circuit of Florida, and the Superior Courts became the Circuit Courts. Initially, the Middle Circuit was comprised of Gadsden (1823), Leon (1824), Jefferson (1827), Madison (1827), Hamilton (1827) and Wakulla (1843) Counties. The following counties were added: Liberty (1855), Taylor (1856) and Lafayette (1856). In 1859, Lafayette County was transferred to the newly created Suwannee Circuit. Franklin County was in the Western Circuit from 1845-1868. Upon the adoption of the Constitution of 1868, the Middle Circuit was placed in the newly created Second Judicial Circuit.

The judges who served the Middle Circuit after Florida became a State were: Thomas Baltzell1 (1845-1850), J. Wayles Baker (1851-1867) and Alexander McDonald2 (1867-1868).

Initially, after Statehood, the Supreme Court's duties were performed by the Circuit Judges. The circuit judge's would meet collectively and when so gathered they constituted the Florida Supreme Court. Of course, a judge could not review a case on appeal if he had previously served as the trial judge in that case. A majority of the circuit judges were required to ". . . hold such sessions of the Supreme Court at such times as may be directed by law." The Legislature had adopted a system of Terms of Court which required the circuit judge to be in a particular county generally twice a year, on a day certain, to hold court. There were four (4) circuit judges; one each from the Western, Middle, Eastern and Southern Circuits, and while they were required to live in their individual circuits, they were also required to rotate among the other circuits. It was believed this rotation would enhance impartiality.

Travel in those days could be difficult. "The Weekly Floridian reminded the public that as far as the Southern Circuit was concerned, a judge in time must become a practical sailor, and egad, a bold one: for many is the man who would face a cannon or meet his particular friend at ten paces, without the slightest tremor of nerves, but would still falter and hesitate at making a trip to Key West, in a sailboat with an inexperienced crew. Finally, the critic recommended that the Legislative Assembly appropriate money for life preservers, instead of a law library, and clothe judges in Indian rubber rather than ermine."3

After two years, the rotation of judges between the circuits was abandoned. Still, there was travel within one's own circuit, as well as the rough and tumble of the pioneer setting. Even in Tallahassee violence abounded. In 1856, a young planter from Madison County was stabbed to death by the hot tempered proprietor of the City Hotel. A trial held three months later resulted in a Not Guilty verdict within thirty minutes. The outcome of the case gave Tallahassee some of the worst press it had experienced for years. The New York Police Gazette headline read: "Life in Tallahassee- The Bowie Knife the Ruler."4

In 1848, the Constitution was amended to provide for a separate Supreme Court. The amendment was not implemented until 1851. Thereafter, circuit judges no longer served collectively as a Supreme Court but presided only over cases within their own circuits. Florida adopted a new constitution in 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War and again in 1865, at the end of the Civil War. Our circuit judge at the time, J. Wayles Baker, weathered all the changes and died in office on July 3, 1867.

This History was prepared by Judge George S. Reynolds III, in memory of Judge Ben C. Willis (1957-1984). Judge Willis spent a great deal of time educating young lawyers and judges on the history of our circuit. Hopefully, this article will reflect well on his efforts.
  1. Judge Baltzell later became Justice Baltzell as a member of the Florida Supreme Court 1854-1860.
  2. J. L. Husband, an attorney from Philadelphia, was appointed by Union Gen. Pope in Atlanta. Gov. David S. Walker had initially recommended John Friend of Fernandina Beach, but Gen. Pope had acted prior to receiving Gov. Walker's recommendation. J. L Husband, after coming to Tallahassee, declined the appointment and Alexander McDonald of Madison, Florida was appointed.
  3. The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 73, Issue 4. "From a Territorial to a State Judiciary: Florida's Antebellum Courts and Judges" by James Denham.
  4. The Red Hills of Florida, 1528-1865, by Clifton Paisley.