When jurors enter the Dade County Courthouse, they expect to find a dignified “house of justice” that inspires awe and respect. Instead, they enter a crumbling, undersized near-century-old structure, riddled with mold, termites, intermittent flooding and plumbing and electrical issues. Despite having 25 floors, 576 full-time workers and 3,600 citizens passing through daily, the building has only seven public restrooms, and one is often broken at any given time. The building also has only 26 courtrooms (some with visual obstructions) but houses more than 40 assigned or visiting judges. Some of the courtrooms lack jury deliberation rooms, and when there are not enough courtrooms to go around, litigants must wait too long for their day in court.
The courthouse was constructed from 1925 through 1928, when Model Ts rumbled up Flagler Street and Dade County had a population of under 43,000.
Today, our county’s population is more than 2.6 million, and more than 1 million people visit the courthouse annually, including 65,000 citizens called for jury duty, people using the law library and thousands of lawyers, litigants and witnesses.
It is time to face reality and build a properly sized courthouse suited for modern times rather than the times of the Model T.
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Each county is constitutionally required to provide a courthouse for the state trial courts, and Miami-Dade is the only major urban county in Florida that has not committed the resources to construct a dignified, functional, appropriately sized, ADA-compliant courthouse.
Over the years, the issues that have plagued the courthouse have prompted the partial closure of 15 floors and forced judges to make emergency moves for remediation. Some courthouse personnel suffer from unexplained fatigue, headaches and respiratory issues — ailments many say stem from the building itself. Morale in the courthouse is low, and no one is immune from the crowded waiting areas, hallways, elevators and public restrooms.
The County Services Department is making $25 million in repairs and estimates that repairs will cost more than $120 million to keep the building open over the next 10 years. That stopgap expenditure would be a bad idea from a cost-for-value perspective because the building is too small, and it won’t be long before we are forced to build a new courthouse.
We are long overdue for what the majority of the Task Force, created by the County Commission to study the issue, called a “dignified and technologically current” facility — a courthouse projected to cost almost $400 million. Although the cost of a new building is certainly substantial, it is a pressing need, particularly given the inevitability of replacing our undersized courthouse. Notably, national experts hired by the county to assist in court infrastructure planning independently agree that the Courthouse must be replaced with a larger, more modern, ADA-compliant building.
As our house of justice crumbles, so, too, will the trust of the people who rely on the court system, and the ability of our system to deliver justice itself. As a nation governed by the rule of law, we ask those with civil disputes to take their grievances to court, and resist taking them into their own hands.
Rather than provide a clean and sound house of justice, we invite over a million people a year into an old, unhealthy, inadequate building designed for a population that would not even fill Sun Life Stadium. If we are to ask people to resolve their disputes in court rather than on the street, we must replace our undersized, crumbling courthouse. The promise of civil justice in Miami-Dade County hangs in the balance.
Sally Heyman represents District 4 on the Miami-Dade County Commission.