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While most state courts face harsh budget cuts, the 1st District Court of Appeal gets a $48 million 'Taj Mahal'

TALLAHASSEE

With budgets slashed, courts across Florida have laid off staff, quit buying law books and curtailed building maintenance. Programs like drug courts, which have helped thousands of people stay out of trouble, have been limited. Mice run rampant in a Tampa courthouse, while in West Palm Beach judges struggle to get courtroom temperatures below 90 degrees because of a malfunctioning air-conditioning system. Meantime, in Tallahassee, the 1st District Court of Appeal is building a courthouse that some call a "Taj Mahal.''

Scheduled to be completed in November, it's a $48 million behemoth in which each judge will get a 60-inch LCD flat screen television in chambers (trimmed in mahogany), a private bathroom (featuring granite countertops) and a kitchen (complete with microwave and refrigerator).

How did it get funded? Like many things that gain life in Tallahassee, the courthouse grew out of a last-minute amendment on the last day of a legislative session. The funding for the courthouse was buried in the middle of a 142-page transportation bill, approved the last day of the 2007 session.

The state had never floated a bond issue to build a courthouse, but Sen. Victor Crist of Tampa attached the amendment that allowed the court to float a $33.5 million bond issue.

Several legislators say they were not aware the courthouse amendment was in the transportation bill when they voted on it.

Former Rep. Lorrane Ausley of Tallahassee voted against the bill, but she says she did not know about the amendment that was added to build the courthouse in her hometown.

"It was safer to vote no on things like that given the lack of transparency on stuff like this,'' Ausley said last week. "I do recall that the judges worked the halls pretty hard. I don't think the Legislature ever intended something like this.''

Judges as lobbyists

The 1st District Court, with 15 judges, is the state's largest, hearing appeals of cases from Jacksonville to Pensacola, and it hears most appeals involving the state.

The court began looking at a new building in 2006 after rejecting the possibility of expanding its existing, rent-free building in downtown Tallahassee.

Lawmakers say two 1st District judges, Chief Judge Paul Hawkes and Judge Brad Thomas, lobbied furiously for the new building. The two spent so much time walking the halls of the Legislature that some lawmakers wondered when they had time to be judges.

Hawkes said that in addition to the new courthouse, he and Thomas lobbied several issues important to the court.

Hawkes and Thomas made use of their legislative and budget experience. Hawkes, a former House member, was once the GOP point man on the budget and helped write House rules. (His son, Jeremiah Hawkes, was general counsel for the House when the construction bond issue was approved.)

Thomas, a longtime Senate staffer, was staff director for the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee when Crist was chairman. Thomas also worked in Gov. Jeb Bush's budget office.

Bush appointed Hawkes to the appellate court in 2003 and Thomas in 2005.

Crist said he attached the court construction amendment to the transportation bill at the request of Senate President Ken Pruitt.

Pruitt denies playing any role in the measure.

The current Senate appropriations chairman, J.D. Alexander of Winter Haven, says Crist was the principal senator driving the construction measure, with heavy lobbying from Hawkes and Thomas.

Crist says it was pitched to him as a collaboration between the courts, Florida State University and the Department of Management Services, or DMS.

Florida Supreme Court Justice Fred Lewis, who was chief judge in 2007, says he was shocked to discover that the 1st District Court of Appeal judges, lawmakers and FSU had reached a "behind the scenes'' deal that approved a bond issue, gave the old courthouse to the FSU Law School and eliminated office space in the old building for the Office of State Courts Administrator.

Lewis said that when he discovered the backroom deal, he tried to set up meetings with legislators and FSU officials, but no one would discuss the deal or consider a change.

"I was snookered,'' the former chief justice said.

Lewis said he asked Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the budget item, to no avail. Gov. Crist (no relation to the state senator) says he does not recall the request.

Hawkes said Lewis is wrong, there was nothing secret about the plan for the new building. He said FSU's political clout among lawmakers led to the decision to give the entire building to the law school.

Lewis said he was misled when Sen. Crist stood on the Senate floor and said the budget included money for a new district courthouse, with plans for the state court administrators to move into the old building and share it with FSU.

More shocking than the bond issue was the news that the new courthouse will cost the state courts an additional $1.7 million a year in rent to be paid to DMS, the state agency that owns the new building. The old building was rent-free to the court.

In addition to that rent, the courts will have to continue paying $287,000 a year in rent for offices housing the court system's administrative staff, which would have been free but for the deal.

Some state judges bitterly resent having to find $2 million in a budget already strained to the breaking point.

"We lost a rent-free building that now belongs to FSU and we are stuck with $1.7 million a year in rent,'' Hillsborough Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. said. "And now some legislators are saying we don't need money because we've got this Taj Mahal.''

You cut, we'll build

The new courthouse is going up on 15 acres in Southwood, a St. Joe development, about 6 miles southeast of the capitol. It has rankled judges around Florida who have had to lay off staff, add to case loads and cut salaries.

Budget cuts since 2007, with more cuts anticipated in the coming years, threaten to push the state court system back 30 years, according to the Florida Supreme Court's 2010 report.

Already more than 280 court jobs have been lost, and trial courts recently were directed to come up with suggestions for additional cuts of as much as 25 percent.

Because most of the courts' budget is for personnel, a cut that large would force most courts to lay off about one-third of their employees, said Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge J. Thomas McGrady.

Some of the judges who will move into the new building say they are embarrassed by extravagances they've heard about, including the 60-inch flat screen TVs in every judge's chambers and other conveniences, including a fitness room equipped with exercise machines and a mirrored wall.

The 112,000-square-foot courthouse will house 112 full- and part-time employees.

The exterior of the new building with a dome and columns is similar to Michigan's Supreme Court building. That's because three members of the court flew to Michigan in 2008 to tour the building with the contractor and architect on the 1st District Court of Appeal courthouse.

The trip, in a private plane, was paid for by the builder, Peter Brown Construction Co. Then-Chief Justice Edwin Browning questioned the need for the trip and said there was no money in the court's budget to pay for it.

The contractor offered to pay after officials from DMS also refused to pay for the trip.

A review of more than 1,300 e-mails shows repeated wrangling between the 1st District judges, DMS, the builder and Barnett Fronczak Barlowe Architects of Tallahassee.

DMS caved to demands from Hawkes to include the judges in every decision made on the building, and even agreed to omit the per-square-foot cost from an overall description of the project, an unprecedented action.

Most state buildings cost about $250 a square foot; the courthouse is costing more than $425 a square foot. Hawkes says it's unfair to compare the square footage cost in a building with so much public space.

The e-mails make clear that DMS was not thrilled with the idea of a dome over the main courtroom, but the judges wanted a building that would "make an impact on the public,'' with a rotunda and columns across the front.

A faux finish is being applied to the columns in the rotunda to make them look like the marbled columns that are seen in many European museums.

Hawkes pushed for a building worthy of the court's "important mission'' and said legislators adopted the judges' vision of a courthouse like the Michigan Supreme Court building instead of just "another brick building.''

He was asked about the jeers of those who call it a Taj Mahal.

"It's a nice facility,'' Hawkes said. "The amazing thing is that most people are impressed because it has a nice design … a nice-looking building at a bargain price. To quote one of our judges, 'Ugly concrete cost the same as attractive concrete.' ''

No detail has been too small for Hawkes' attention, including the pegs in a robing room where judges will hang their black robes, shelves, wall colors, wood trim, cushioned benches and granite countertops.

Hawkes surfed a garden furnishing Internet site to find chairs for an employee break room and sent out examples of acceptably heavy chairs.

Sen. Crist said he attended several meetings between the court and DMS, trying to keep the peace. "The bottom line is neither side likes the other,'' he said.

At one point DMS officials urged the court not to invite "ad hoc members'' of the building committee to meetings "to avoid airing the dirty laundry'' in front of others. Hawkes acknowledges that initially there were problems, but he says everyone is getting along well now.

Some longtime lawyers in Tallahassee have suggested the state needs to recall former Gov. Claude Kirk, who left office in 1971. Faced with the construction of a fancy new Capitol building, Kirk suggested the state was building "princely and ponderous palaces for political potentates.''

Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com.

While most state courts face harsh budget cuts, the 1st District Court of Appeal gets a $48 million 'Taj Mahal' 08/08/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 9, 2010 1:18pm]
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