Hernando judiciary holds firm in courtroom space fight

Chief Judge Daniel B. Merritt Sr. and a half-dozen lawyers insisted at the County Commission’s March 8 meeting that the judiciary’s need for more space has long been established. They also criticized a Times report showing local courtrooms go unused about 60 percent of the time.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Chief Judge Daniel B. Merritt Sr. and a half-dozen lawyers insisted at the County Commission’s March 8 meeting that the judiciary’s need for more space has long been established. They also criticized a Times report showing local courtrooms go unused about 60 percent of the time.

BROOKSVILLE — Attorney Joe Mason thumped the lectern before him as he insisted to county commissioners last week that they provide local judges more courtrooms.

In a March 6 story investigating the judiciary space issue, the St. Petersburg Times interviewed University of Florida law school professor Jennifer Zedalis — who lambasted the idea that all judges need their own courtrooms.

But the longtime Brooksville lawyer called her perspective worthless.

"I can't believe the newspaper quotes a college professor about the need for courtrooms," said Mason, who graduated from UF's law school. "A college professor is probably the last person who would know how a courtroom ought to be scheduled and what needs of courts might be."

Mason, clearly, had no idea whose credentials he was degrading.

Zedalis has practiced law in Florida for nearly three decades. She is serving her third term on the Florida Bar's Executive Council of Criminal Law Section. She also heads the law school's Trial Practice Program and regularly works alongside and discusses legal issues with 10 or more county, circuit and federal judges. Friday, in fact, two of those judges will be teaching in her classroom.

Zedalis has worked as an assistant public defender in two circuits (including this one) and as a County Court division chief; she has run her own private practice and spent many hours in courtrooms at the Alachua County Criminal Justice Center in Gainesville.

"I know a lot more about what's going in Florida courtrooms than whoever it was who said that," she said. "My perspective comes from experience."

Mason's criticisms were among many that commissioners heard and discussed at the March 8 meeting in which they voted 4-1 to examine all possibilities for expanding judicial space and shuffling county offices.

After a brief introduction by Chief Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Sr., General Magistrate Gerrie Bishop presented the judiciary's case for more space.

Along with several of the six attorneys who spoke after her, she criticized a Times' survey that showed the county's seven courtrooms were empty nearly 60 percent of the times at which they were checked — every business day at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. — over three weeks.

The survey, she said, unfairly tested the judiciary's need because it focused on usage rates rather than the heavy docket schedules, arranged months in advance.

Twice to commissioners, Bishop inaccurately stated what the Times had reported.

"I think there's something in the newspaper about population has decreased," she told them. "I don't know where the newspaper picked that up."

But the Times' story never stated that. Instead, research of the county's website found from 2008 to 2010, Hernando's population grew by fewer than 300 people.

Bishop also said the story implied that when judges were not observed in their courtrooms during the survey, they were thought to be playing golf.

"I think one newspaper article mentioned tee times," she said, adding that judges often work long hours in their chambers or elsewhere when they're not presiding over cases in courtrooms. "That does not mean," she added, "the judge is out playing golf."

In the comments section of one story on TampaBay.com, an online contributor alluded to judges scheduling court proceedings around tee times, but no Times' story ever mentioned the number of hours judges work outside the courtrooms or their golf habits, as Bishop claimed.

Research did find that, according to the Clerk of the Circuit Court's Office, the local judges' annual caseloads dropped by 15 percent — 9,223 cases — between 2006 and 2010.

She and some of the lawyers also pointed to a study in 2000 by Orlando-based HLM Design/Carter Goble Associates that recommended the construction of a free-standing judicial complex on the property behind the Government Center in downtown Brooksville.

"You can't use a peek-in-the-window newspaper reporter and a wander-the-halls commissioner," Mason said, "to countermand the studies that have been done by professionals."

Before beginning the survey, Times' reporters requested a record of how long each courtroom was being used each day, but learned from the clerk's office that no such data was kept.

Also, when Hernando County conducted its own courtroom-use study approximately five years ago, employees used the same methodology as the Times.

A maintenance technician visited each courtroom every day at approximately 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to record usage, said Craig Becker of the facilities department. He said he believed the survey was stopped after about a week when a bailiff told Merritt about the exercise, and the judge objected to the scrutiny.

After Commissioner Jeff Stabins requested a copy of that study from Merritt last month, the judge informed him the judiciary did not have the document. He then accused the commissioner through e-mail of "continued efforts to politicize the judicial space issue for your own shortsighted agenda.''

In return, Merritt filed his own records request to Stabins for the study.

Amid all the discussion, though, the decade-old Carter Goble countywide study has been at the center of the judiciary's argument for more space. From its findings, officials produced a facilities master plan that recommended vast expansion throughout county government.

The Times requested a copy of the study and any updated versions created since then.

Judy Korbus, administrative services manager for the clerk's office, located the initial facilities plan and noted that in October 2005, commissioners voted to update the plan. She found that then-purchasing director Jim Gantt mentioned at an April 2006 meeting that he had received the update but had not reviewed it.

"I cannot find where the update was ever presented to the BCC," she wrote in an e-mail.

Still, many who spoke at the March 8 meeting cited a bevy of past studies they said have been presented to the County Commission that proved the need for more space, and they decried the idea that any more studies should be done.

"We're only asking," Bishop said, "that our judiciary be accorded the same respect as judges around the state."

But neither Bishop, nor the attorneys who spoke, nor any commissioner acknowledged the portion of the Times' report that queried all 19 of the state's other judicial circuits. Of the 13 that responded, officials in every case said judges within their circuits shared courtrooms.

An additional survey of nine counties with similar populations to Hernando found that the local ratio of judges to courtrooms was not unusual. Some had a higher ratio of judges to courtrooms, like Okaloosa's nine-to-seven; while others had a much lower, like Clay's five-to-nine.

Also insisting that the necessity for more space had long been established, Hernando County Bar Association secretary Darryl Johnston bashed Stabins for using the Times' survey as evidence that the judiciary doesn't need more space.

"I just can't believe you'd throw that out in public," he said. "It's just absolutely irresponsible."

Like Mason, Johnston also criticized the Times for interviewing a professor, and he emphasized that the commission should base its decision on the testimony of those who regularly use the courtrooms.

Even an empty courtroom, he said, is one that's utilized.

"Just because you go in there and you don't see anybody in there doesn't mean it's not reasonable and necessary to have it and to state otherwise is just absolutely unfair and irresponsible," he said. "The courtrooms serve a function even when they're not physically being used."

Documents indicate the Hernando County Bar Association pleaded with its members to show up Tuesday and support the judges' position. From minutes recorded by Johnston, five members of the judiciary were present at the Feb. 9 Bar meeting at which members were asked to attend Tuesday's commission discussion.

Civic activist Janey Baldwin implored the commission to ignore the requests of the judiciary and the lawyers and to hire an independent entity to re-examine the need.

"You can't rely on the testimony of the judges and the attorneys … in this commission room because unfortunately they are prejudiced," she said. "They mean well. It's their livelihood. They work here. They're not about to disagree with the chief judge, and I don't blame them. I probably wouldn't, either."

Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or jcox@sptimes.com.

Hernando judiciary holds firm in courtroom space fight 03/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 9:33pm]

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