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Hernando judges don't need an $80 million courthouse

The seemingly rigid concept of need can actually be pretty flexible.

A starving child definitely needs to eat. At the same time, a South Tampa trophy wife might think she "needs'' a pedicure.

So where along this range of meaning should we place Hernando County's need for a new judicial center, one expected to cost between $50 million and $80 million?

I'd say closer to the pedicure.

You may be wondering why we're still talking about this. You might think it was all taken care of Tuesday, when the County Commission voted to find space in the government center for one more courtroom.

Hardly.

Chief Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt Sr. called this approach a "Band-Aid on an amputation'' and subtly threatened legal action if the county didn't live up to its obligation to provide adequate courtroom space.

Hearing this, the first question that occurred to me was whether we really need so many judges.

In 1989, when I moved here, two judges and an occasional visiting jurist handled all of the cases in Hernando.

Since then, the population has grown less than 70 percent, yet our judicial ranks have nearly quadrupled. We now have eight judges, one of whom is assigned to Citrus County two days a week.

Though the number of criminal cases climbed more slowly than the population during this time, reflecting a declining crime rate, we apparently like to sue each other a lot more. The civil docket has grown from 3,451 cases that required a judge's attention in 1989 to 13,297 in 2008.

So, yes, that means a lot more work, and the state Legislature is supposed to create new judicial positions only when warranted by an increased caseload.

But, remember, judges who feel overworked usually have powerful friends to whom they can complain. Most of them also have lots of lawyer buddies who would love to wear a black robe and bang a gavel.

And the rules governing new judgeships are just pliable enough to bend to this political influence, said County Commission Chairman David Russell, a former state representative.

"It's subjectively formulaic,'' Russell said. "I saw that firsthand, my friend.''

Of course, these are state decisions, and there's not much we locals can do about them — except to keep in mind that each new judicial appointment represents a burden on taxpayers.

Which leads to the next question: Do our judges really need more space?

Even though county courtrooms often sit dark and empty, I think we probably do.

With only six courtrooms, judges are sometimes forced to make explosive rulings — awarding child custody, for example — in their offices' hearing rooms with hostile parties sitting around a narrow table.

One morning last month, all eight judges were scheduled to start trials, Merritt said. If not for a last-minute cancellation, at least one would have been postponed.

So it's a problem. But there's no way it's an $80 million problem.

Population experts predict slow growth in Hernando for the next two decades. The increasing civil caseload is due partly to the flood of foreclosures that will eventually recede. And, in the immediate future, the rest of county government is shrinking, which should free up some office space.

All of which leaves me thinking we could create plenty of courtrooms for our future needs at the relative bargain price of $18.6 million — the amount already set aside for courtroom construction.

Spending it now rather than sitting on it, as the commission decided to do Tuesday, could provide a bit of economic stimulus and take advantage of the current pool of cheap, available labor. These were two of the justifications that County Administrator David Hamilton originally gave for fast-tracking the project.

And I've heard lots of promising ideas that would cost a lot less than building an all-new court complex in downtown Brooksville.

Renovating the abandoned Kmart on U.S. 19 would free up lots of space in the government complex in Brooksville and also place some courtrooms on the densely populated west side of the county. One proposal, which didn't make the final cut, called for a renovation of the government center, including filling in the atrium to create floor space, at a cost of $22 million.

Why not look into both of these?

Judges might not be completely happy with all of these options.

Building courtrooms on a budget might mean building some of them smaller — especially ones used only for civil cases — or dividing up some of the most spacious courtrooms.

It might require senior judges to give up their big courtrooms a few days each month when other judges plow through big criminal dockets, which is pretty much the only time courtrooms fill up.

Finally, it won't satisfy the traditional idea that county courthouses should serve as monuments to the judicial system.

That would be nice, I agree. I'd like to see a modern version of those old courthouses with the marble friezes and bronze statues.

But right now, it's not what we need.

Hernando judges don't need an $80 million courthouse 03/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 14, 2009 1:56pm]
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