In January 2014, news that 90 percent of the steel support columns in the Dade County Courthouse were compromised ignited our most recent efforts to address the deteriorating building. For decades, prior chief judges have been warning that the courthouse is too small and dysfunctional and in need of significant repairs because of structural issues, 88-year-old electrical and plumbing systems and 60-year-old air conditioners.
Today, the courthouse simply cannot meet the needs of our 2.5 million residents. Clerks, assistants, bailiffs and judges have continued to serve the community despite near impossible conditions, doing their jobs while repair workers are drilling and hammering around them.
While conditions at the courthouse are certainly challenging to those who labor here, who pays the greatest price? The people we serve: mom-and-pop businesses owners with contract disputes; children settling affairs after a parent has died; and the injured. People with disabilities face particular difficulties accessing the courthouse and courtrooms.
No one hopes to be in court, but if residents must to take action to protect their rights, they deserve that the courts be able to resolve their cases quickly.
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In fact, the Florida Constitution Declaration of Rights specifically says that the courts “shall be open to every person for redress of any injury, and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.” The Florida Constitution also requires local communities to cover the costs for local courthouses. Other major urban areas in Florida have had to confront the reality of aging civil court infrastructure and have built new courthouses.
The Miami-Dade County Commission, at the insistence of Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, convened an independent panel of experts for the Court Infrastructure Task Force. By a 5-1 vote, the task force confirmed 30 years of independent professional studies recommending that the Dade County Courthouse be replaced.
Structural deterioration, mold, leaks, electrical and mechanical malfunctions have partially or totally closed 17 floors at various times in the past two years. Just to keep the doors open at the 88-year-old courthouse on Flagler Street over the next 10 years would cost $120 million. Replacing the air conditioners will cost $21.7 million and will close every large courtroom. Closed courtrooms mean delayed cases.
The court already disperses local civil litigation, currently 68,572 cases, into the five branch courthouses located in North Dade, South Dade, Miami Beach, Hialeah and Coral Gables, most of which are at capacity. Further decentralization would require the county to double the size of the existing branch courts -- essentially building five new courthouses and increasing operating costs five times.
Others suggest further splitting the remaining civil court into two or three downtown locations. This idea still requires the investment of more than $200 million to repair the Dade County Courthouse and retrofit other aged buildings. It would triple operating costs. Retrofitting 140 W. Flagler with similar preexisting mold, structural and condition issues would cost $107 million, according to the county.
A courthouse is essential to our democracy and is an essential public service. George Washington said it best: “The administration of justice is the firmest pillar of government.”
We thank Mayor Carlos Gimenez and the County Commission for recognizing this crisis, and we thank the Court Infrastructure Task Force for its diligence. This issue has now been studied enough.
Unfortunately, “Justice delayed is justice denied” is the current reality for too many residents of Miami-Dade County. Compared with the cost of a new courthouse that would properly serve the community for decades, trying to “Band-aid” the Dade County Courthouse does not add up. Miami-Dade County needs a new civil courthouse, and we must take action now.
Bertila Soto is chief judge of the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida.