BROOKSVILLE — One by one, a half-dozen local attorneys stepped to a lectern before the Hernando County Commission Tuesday and insisted the judiciary needs more space.
"It will be a travesty if this commission ignores the need," Brooksville attorney Joe Mason told commission members. "Don't do another study. It's a waste of time, and it's a waste of money."
As Chief Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Sr. watched from the second row of the meeting room, every attorney who spoke echoed the opinion the judge has brought before commission members for years.
The discussion was tense and at times confrontational. Merritt, at one point, even stood and scolded a commissioner for being "out of order."
After two hours of lively talk, commissioners voted 4-1 to examine all possibilities for expanding judicial space and shuffling county offices.
County officials will continue to talk to county staff, judicial staff and constitutional officers about the plan proposed by County Administrator David Hamilton to move county offices to the historic 1913 courthouse and shift judicial and Clerk of the Circuit Court functions into the newest sections of the downtown Government Center.
In addition, county staff will study other county-owned buildings to plan a more efficient use of space. The commission also asked for appraisals on two large properties available for purchase, the SunTrust Bank and the old Brooksville Regional Hospital.
The move comes just days after the St. Petersburg Times published a survey showing the 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 report also found that the judges' caseloads, while rising since 2000, dropped by 15 percent between 2006 and 2010.
Last week, the Times also queried the other 19 judicial circuits throughout the state. Of the 13 that responded, officials in every case said judges within their circuits shared courtrooms.
The board's decision appears to be at odds with some statements commissioners made Friday after hearing the Times' findings.
Commissioner David Russell had said the findings indicated that with a good plan to reshuffle courthouse uses, "We should be able to accommodate the court's needs within our own space for years to come."
Chairman Jim Adkins also said on Friday he didn't believe more space was necessary. "As of right now, I don't think that the taxpayers can have a courtroom for every judge," he said. "I don't think we can afford it."
No mention was made during the discussion, but Hamilton had already told commissioners that next week he will recommend taking several million dollars out of the $12 million fund for the judicial center to pay for part of the Hernando Beach Channel dredging project.
Merritt only briefly addressed the commission to introduce General Magistrate Gerrie Bishop, who presented the judiciary's case for more space.
Bishop highlighted 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.
Bishop said the Times' report did not paint a complete picture of the space needs as it focused on usage rates rather than the heavy docket schedules, arranged months in advance.
Cases are often not settled until they're scheduled for trial, she said, because defendants and attorneys many times don't settle until the hearings are imminent and those outcomes are nearly impossible to predict. When a case settles, she said, the empty courtroom has served a purpose.
After she spoke, Commissioner Jeff Stabins — the only dissenting vote — began to ask her a question. While doing so, he called the Times' study "excellent," and Bishop interjected to say she would otherwise define the word.
"Ma'am, I didn't interrupt you, don't interrupt me, okay?" Stabins said. "You're out of order. Thank you."
At that point, Merritt rose from his seat on the second row and sternly addressed the commissioner. "Excuse me, but I think you may be out of order, sir. You asked her a question and she is responding and you interrupted."
The host of lawyers who followed repeated her points, concluding there is no question the judiciary requires more courtrooms.
Documents indicate the Hernando County Bar Association pleaded with its members to show up Tuesday and support the judges' position. From minutes recorded by Bar secretary Darryl Johnston, who spoke before the commission, five members of the judiciary were present at the Feb. 9 Bar meeting at which members were asked to attend Tuesday's commission discussion.