If you are a frequenter of downtown Tampa's courthouses, maybe you already know this:
Justice is not blind. Not Lady Justice, anyway.
Ten years ago today, a crowd gathered outside Hillsborough County's bustling George Edgecomb Courthouse. A white sheet was ceremoniously whisked away and there she was in all her towering 2,000-pound glory: a bronze statue of a woman called "Veritas et Justitia," truth and justice, and after that Lady Justice to everyone.
That day, this very newspaper waxed on about her "golden highlights sparkling under the late morning sun." "Magnificent," breathed a public official who soon after would be embroiled in a scandal that would end her career.
Indeed, the statue was something to see, coppery green with that fall of golden ringlets cascading from her crown of stars, her toga clingy, her feet bare and her arms raised as if to balance some great truth, the left higher than the right.
Or, as some said, perhaps she was just directing traffic out on Twiggs Street.
The artist, accomplished New York City painter and sculptor Audrey Flack, explained then that the figure herself was the scales of justice, so she didn't need to carry scales around like you might expect. And a blindfold? Sure, she wore one, except hers had slits for her eyes. "Blind," the artist explained, "but she can see." You had to like that.
But even outside a busy courthouse where everyone seems to be thinking heavy thoughts, we have time to be opinionated. I mean, what's the purpose of public art if you can't argue about it?
How come she looked like an exotic dancer, asked naysayers that day, or a fairy in dreadlocks? Where's her sword, not to mention her shoes?
"What's with the gold perm?" smart-alecked a lawyer passing by.
She withstood it, serene. For a decade now, she has been there, steady and imperious above the mad daily courthouse carnival. Below her outstretched arms, a screaming preacher blares fire and brimstone from a Gwen Stefani-style headset as passers-by pretty much ignore him. A guy on a competing microphone sings moody hymns. Spare-changers hold out plastic foam cups from benches and artists sprawl on sidewalk grates, hawking their chalked drawings and their roses fashioned from palm fronds.
Five years ago, I happened upon workers encasing Lady J in a giant plywood box, pounding the lid on tight in preparation for the Republican National Convention about to hit town, protecting her from potential protestors with spray paint or plans to topple her. Locking up Lady Justice, I lamented in print back then. "The state of political discourse in America has come to this," I wrote. And, ha. Little did I know what discourse was coming.
She is as much a part of this place as the metal detectors or the snack bar that sells Cuban cheese toast — a landmark of sorts. (You want the building with the big green woman in front.) Clerk of the Court Pat Frank likes her so much that she arranged for a bust of her at a courthouse across the street and a mini-me of her at the Plant City Courthouse. One court employee — a family law case manager named Robert Koehler — actually had her tattooed into the Tampa-themed ink that runs from his shoulder to his elbow.
Justice might be blind, but she also might not be done.
The recent turmoil over Florida's death penalty could mean the return of some of this town's most notorious killers for resentencing, perhaps a dozen or so of them. Lady Justice will be open for business.
Every now and then in the rush outside the courthouse, someone will stop long enough to look up at her, to take her in, before moving on to whatever kind of justice might be waiting inside.
Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]