I am utterly amazed there remains any debate over the need for a new Dade County Courthouse. The discussion should be over and the need for a new courthouse without doubt.
Our courthouse opened its doors to the public in 1928 — nearly a century ago. Though it is called the “courthouse,” county officials never intended it solely for the courts. The courts were intended just to occupy only two of its 24 floors, whereas the Dade County and city of Miami governments, along with their bureaucracies and commissions, took up the majority of the building. Even the Dade County jail and the IRS were located there.
As the judiciary expanded from a handful of judges in 1928 to its current roster of 124 judges to meet South Florida’s recurring population booms, the courthouse ran out of room to conduct judicial business. When the city vacated the building in the 1950s, the county converted the vacant offices into courtrooms and chambers. The same thing happened when the county left the building. The re-purposing of the offices was akin to force fitting a square peg into a round hole. The courtrooms, jury rooms, and chambers above the sixth floor never were intended for that space. This explains the oddly shaped courtrooms and the support columns that interfere with a juror’s ability to see a witness, counsel or the judge.
I was assigned a courtroom on the eighth floor, during my first three years as a judge in the civil division. I invite anyone to visit the courtroom’s jury room. I frequently joked out loud that it was so small the jury had to seek permission to leave just so it could have enough room to change its mind. The toilet in the jury room was but a few feet from the panel’s deliberation table. While the jury had privacy in the room, individual jurors had none. The people of this county deserve better.
While fewer than 1 percent of cases are tried to verdict in the county courthouse, that statistic is no different than other counties in the state. Does this mean we shouldn’t have courtrooms befitting a mega metropolis and first-class city and county? Of course not. The number of actual trials conducted, though relevant, should not be a deciding factor, since the courtrooms are used for hearings throughout the day.
Our courthouse is an historic landmark. It remains a symbol of South Florida justice and progress that needs protection from those who fail to understand and appreciate its importance. Candidly, if funding were not an issue, there would be no debate over the need for a new downtown courthouse.
It’s time for well-meaning elected local officials to muster the political will and find the funds for a 21st-century courthouse. Justice deserves no less.
Scott J. Silverman is a retired Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge. He served on the bench for almost 22 years.