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Judges should dismiss their own case for more courtrooms

County Administrator David Hamilton would like to take the county's underused, "archived" historic courtroom — with its tall windows, high ceilings and polished woodwork — and transform it into a County Commission meeting room.

I like that part of his plan, which also includes handing the 1980s-era county government center over to the judges so they can expand the number of courtrooms from seven to 10, spending untold millions refitting offices and maybe buying the nearby SunTrust Bank building for county office space.

Even that part would be okay if it were necessary.

Problem is, nobody has proven it is. And none of the judges or lawyers at Tuesday's commission meeting could provide a coherent, well-documented response to the report in Sunday's Times by staff writers John Woodrow Cox and Barbara Behrendt. In fact, if the judges heard their own case in court, they'd probably throw it out.

Over the previous three weeks, Cox, Behrendt and other staffers did what hardly anybody else debating this issue has bothered to do — actually look to see how much the courtrooms are being used, which turned out to be just slightly more than 40 percent of the time.

They also reported the number of new cases in Hernando declined 15 percent between 2006 and 2010, that the county's population has stagnated and that the current ratio of judges to courtrooms, nearly 1-to-1, is higher than in many surrounding jurisdictions.

Doesn't sound as though the courtrooms are exactly bursting at the seams, does it? And despite the threats, it doesn't sound as though more judges will be assigned here any time soon. If they are, taxpayers should really revolt.

Judges in other counties said they are willing to share courtrooms, especially in view of the hard times. And one very credible source, University of Florida law professor Jennifer Zedalis, said the old notion that each judge needs a courtroom is convenient for their schedules, but far from necessary.

"The judges don't own the courtroom,'' said Zedalis, a member of the Bar for nearly 30 years, "the taxpayer does."

Chief Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Sr., General Magistrate Gerrie Bishop and several private lawyers presented a lot of the same old arguments, the main one being that judges need lots of courtrooms to schedule trials so lawyers have a deadline to reach settlements. Brooksville lawyer Joe Mason derided the Times' research methods as "a peep through windows" and seemed aghast that we had relied on the word of a law professor from UF — where, by the way, he received his law degree.

The overall message was that only judges and lawyers, who use the courtrooms, can tell whether we need to spend millions on building more of them, which is like saying only teachers can enter the class-size debate.

The County Commission really didn't do anything other than tell staffers to look into the idea, which is a good thing because there is no real deadline here, just the artificial one imposed by banker Jim Kimbrough's offer to sell the SunTrust building for $4 million.

To be fair, the county will grow and so will the number of cases filed.

We will need more judges, and now we have a credible, thoughtful plan for accommodating them — when the time comes.

Judges should dismiss their own case for more courtrooms 03/08/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 1:31am]
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