Middle Judicial District of Florida | 1824 - 1845

In 1824, Congress created a Middle Judicial District between the Apalachicola and the Suwannee Rivers. William W. Blair was appointed as the Judge of the Middle District by President James Monroe on May 27, 1824. However, he died on July 27, 1824 in St. Augustine without ever having performed any judicial duties1. Soon thereafter, Augustus B. Woodward was appointed by the President to be the Superior Court Judge of the Middle District [to be located] at Tallahassee in the newly established Leon County. Upon his death in 1826, Thomas Randall was appointed his successor by President John Quincy Adams. Judge Randall served until 1840, when his term expired. Next, President Van Buren appointed Alfred Balch (1840-1841) who, after an extended illness, resigned to return to Tennessee. Then Samuel James Douglas2 (1841-1845) was appointed by President Tyler. Judge Douglas served until 1845 when Florida became a State.

Initially, the Middle District was comprised of Gadsden (1823), Leon (1824), Jefferson (1827), Madison (1827), Hamilton (1827) and Wakulla County (1843) counties. Franklin County (1832) was part of the Western District from 1832-34, the Middle District from 1834-38, and then in the Apalachicola District from 1838-45. Congress and later the Legislative Council adopted a system of Terms of Court which required the District Judge to be in a particular county, on a day certain, to hold court. Travel was by horseback or buggy. Roads were more like trails, and rivers and streams were always difficult. Lodging ranged from poor public accommodations, if even available, to homes of friends and local lawyers.

Times could be trying. The days were full of actual danger of Indian raids, outlaws and political danger in a politically difficult period of our history. Dueling, horse racing, gambling, drinking and fighting were everyday occurrences. Most counties did not have or could not maintain a jail. An example of the violent environment can be gleaned from a report by the Comte De Castelnau, a scientific traveler, of a trip he made to Monticello, in Jefferson County, with Judge Randall in November of 1837.

"On that day they were holding court in a log house, and a rain had come so that the judge was for two hours exposed to the water that poured in abundantly between the poorly joined beams. This place is famous for the quarrelsome spirits of its inhabitants, and I learned from the judge, Mr. Randall, a learned and well brought up man, that in two years eleven men had been murdered in the market place. During the day we spent there we were present at several fights and saw several heads bruised. As for bloody noses they were so ordinary that one might have considered them universal. When a young man longs to fight, which is very often, he is accustomed to go to the square and after having imitated a cock, to cry out from on horseback: 'I am a horse but I defy anyone to ride me.' Sometimes they fight with their fist, but generally with a pistol, a bowie knife or iron covered cudgel."

"Finally night came to put an end to all these horrors, and I was glad to leave that cursed place the next morning and to be surrounded by majestic peaceful forest.3"

Appeals were originally directly to the United States Supreme Court, but in 1824 Congress created a Territorial Court of Appeals which lasted until Florida became a State in the Union. The District Court Judges of Florida constituted the Court of Appeals when they would come together and sit collectively, which they were required to do on a regular basis. This served as the model for the early Florida Supreme Court. At the end of the territorial period all of the pending appeals were transferred to the new Florida Supreme Court except for those cognizable by the U. S. District Court.

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. The Florida Supreme Court and Its Predecessor Courts 1821-1917, Manley, Brown and Wise, 1997, p.38.
  2. William Brockenbrough, an attorney in Apalachicola, was initially appointed but declined the appointment. Judge Douglas later became Justice Douglas as a member of the Florida Supreme Court 1866-1868.
  3. The Florida Historical Quarterly, Volume XXVI, January 1948, Number 3.