As Miami-Dade leaders consider a replacement for the county’s 1928 civil courthouse, a battle line is being formed over just how many courtrooms to give the county’s civil judges.
A county task force recommends a new facility with roughly one courtroom for each judge, rather than the current arrangement of 41 judges sharing 26 courtrooms in the existing building in downtown Miami.
Pointing to courtrooms with ill-positioned columns blocking views of the bench and entire floors without public bathrooms, circuit court judges complained to county commissioners Wednesday of “sub-par spaces” and cramped judicial facilities not fit for a “world-class city.”
“We’re a big county,” Administrative Judge Jennifer Bailey told the 13-member commission. “We have big calendars, and big cases [and] courtrooms that are loaded to the gills, crowded anterooms, crowded hallways, crowded lobbies.”
But a dissenting member of the task force that endorsed the one-room-per-judge strategy is urging commissioners to scrutinize whether the local judiciary actually needs that much space.
“If you walk across the street and go to the courthouse now, you will see most of the courtrooms are empty,” Maria Luisa Castellanos, a Coral Gables architect who served on the seven-member Miami-Dade Court Capital Infrastructure Task Force, said as the clock approached noon. “It’s only overcrowded in the morning.”
Her charge shaped much of the debate as commissioners formally received the 793-page report, with backers of the recommendations arguing a new courthouse needs to handle the county’s judicial system at its busiest.
“You plan a roadway based on peak need,” said Rick Crooks, the Miami engineer who served as the task force’s chairman. “You really need to look at the courthouse based on when it is fully operational.”
Commissioners formed the task force on the heels of county voters’ rejection of a 2014 ballot item that would have raised property taxes to build a new courthouse to replace the aging one at 73 W. Flagler St. The task force recommended Miami-Dade explore new fees for traffic citations, development surcharges, higher filing costs for litigation and other revenue sources to fund a courthouse project that at one point was estimated to cost $360 million. The report urged creation of a 50-room courthouse to accommodate a roster of 53 judges.
The construction project would be a plum contract for developers, particularly with Miami-Dade considering a “public-private” financing model. That approach typically involves a for-profit company providing the money up front and then being repaid at a profit with government dollars over several decades while operating the new facility.
It also would resolve the question of what to do with the 28-story building that once held the county’s commission chambers, executive offices and even the Miami jail. In 2018, the iconic structure will mark its 90th year as Miami-Dade’s primary civil courthouse, with a history long enough it once held a trial for Al Capone. A leaky facade and malfunctioning air-conditioning units caused mold outbursts in the run-up to the 2014 election, which still failed with support of less than 40 percent of the vote.
The county’s Internal Services department, which administers the courthouse, says most of the problems have been fixed. But Judge Jerald Bagley told commissioners he no longer works in his chambers over the weekend given the alarming number of staffers throughout the building reporting illness. “I don’t want to occupy a sick building,” he said.
Castellanos and others resisting the new-courthouse plan haven’t unified around a counter proposal. But the ideas generally involve making use of the existing building and perhaps other nearby county facilities to house judges and then open more affordable satellite court facilities elsewhere in the county.
“This was about creating a court system that worked for the residents of Miami-Dade County, and not for the judges of Miami-Dade County,” said Raquel Regalado, the county school-board member whose campaign against the 2014 ballot item helped launch her current run for Miami-Dade mayor.
Chief Judge Bertila Soto noted the court system already has satellites around the county, and said a new primary courthouse would make it easier for residents to access the judicial system without the trying conditions present today.
“This courthouse is not for the judges,” she said. “It is for the citizens of Dade County.”
Castellanos, who authored a “minority report” attached to the task force’s recommendations, criticized the idea of building dozens of courtrooms with space for spectators and juries. She said that since most civil cases settle, the spacious courtrooms are overkill and largely spare judges from having to share space.
Judge Bailey countered that the approach ignores peak times when the courthouse needs as much space as it can get, when a lack of facilities prolongs the time ordinary citizens must be in court.
“Yes, 95 percent of civil cases resolve without a trial,” she told commissioners. “But you know what? One-hundred percent of cases have a constitutional right to go to trial. And we need to plan to honor that right.”