Leaning against a wooden partition just behind the prosecutor's table, a bailiff chatted with the only person scheduled for a Wednesday afternoon hearing in Courtroom B at the Hernando County Government Center. A clerk sat in front of a computer as the three waited, just before 2 p.m., for the judge to arrive.
Down the hall, Circuit Judge Heidi Davis heard a civil case, and in the packed courtroom next to her, a man sporting jean shorts and a ponytail stepped to a lectern to face a battery charge before County Judge Kurt Hitzemann. On the other side of the complex, on the same floor, another bailiff and clerk sat alone in the county's historic courtroom and waited for hearings to begin.
The pair of courtrooms on the fourth floor sat empty, as did the one on the first floor.
Two in session, two in waiting and three vacant. It was a typical afternoon.
During the last three weeks, St. Petersburg Times staff members have surveyed the government center in downtown Brooksville twice a day — about 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. — and discovered that at those times, the seven courtrooms were empty nearly 60 percent of the time.
For a reporter to consider a courtroom "in use," court did not have to be in session; the room simply had to be occupied, even if by a single bailiff, clerk or attorney. In fact, in about a dozen cases counted as in use, court was not in session. That means of the 168 individual courtroom checks conducted, judges were only hearing cases about one-third of the time.
For years, Chief Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Sr. has insisted to the County Commission that the judiciary needs more space. But as commissioners weigh what to do with $12.5 million in general fund money earmarked for judicial expansion and as they consider the potential purchase of a multimillion-dollar property that could house more county offices, evidence — including the survey — shows the extra space may not be necessary.
While population, arrests and case loads have risen significantly since 2000, all three have either stabilized or declined in recent years.
Arrests in the county, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, fell by 9 percent between 2006 and 2009.
The county's website says from 2008 to 2010, Hernando's population grew by less than 300 people.
And, according to the Clerk of the Circuit Court's Office, judges' annual case loads dropped by 15 percent — 9,223 cases — between 2006 and 2010.
Still, opinions vary widely on the issue.
The Times' survey, Merritt said, was flawed and did not fairly test or portray the judges' true need for more space because it studied usage rates rather than the heavy docket schedules, arranged months in advance. He also disputed the declining case load numbers provided by the clerk's office, and he refused to answer related questions until he could verify them.
Just two weeks ago, the judge told commissioners the need for more courtrooms has long been proven.
"It's been studied. It's been looked at. It's been established. The commission has recognized it on a number of occasions," he said. "I welcome a study at any time. We have no problem showing you we need additional space. We've done it in the past. . . . I really don't think it's necessary at this point. I think we're beyond that.''
After hearing the Times' findings, some county commissioners said they are not so sure. And practices throughout Florida differ from circuit to circuit.
Judges outnumber courtrooms in many counties, and in several of those, officials said they were doing the best with what they have in tough economic times. Others have begun to expand their judicial space.
One legal expert insisted courtrooms shared by judges can't run efficiently; another lambasted the idea that all judges should have their own.
"It's funny that we ever had the notion to begin with that every judge needs a separate courtroom," said University of Florida professor Jennifer Zedalis, who has either practiced or taught law in the state for almost three decades. "Why? Every judge doesn't need his own courtroom.
"The judge doesn't own the courtroom. The taxpayer does."
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A total of 10 courtrooms, Merritt said, would cover the judiciary's current need; in planning for the future, 13 would be optimal.
Although the county employs 7.6 judges, a number which counts a part-time role, Merritt said as many as 11 judicial officers can require use of the seven courtrooms.
"We also have situations that obviously your informal survey hasn't shown where we come here ready to start trials on Monday morning," he said, "and we have nine people needing a courtroom and there are only seven courtrooms."
That situation, he said, arises about once a month, but has the potential to occur every week.
Among the 24 total a.m. and p.m. surveys of the courthouse that ran from the afternoon of Feb. 15 until Friday morning, all seven courtrooms were never in use. Four times, six courtrooms were occupied.
Also four times, only one courtroom was occupied.
Still, Merritt said, for the judicial system to work best, all judges should have their own courtrooms.
"The most efficient way to administer justice by a judge is for a judge to have his own courtroom," he said. "If a judge doesn't have a courtroom and they need to schedule something, they have to schedule it around when another courtroom may be available."
Last week, the Times 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.
Courtroom sharing, many said, is an acceptable way to make best use of space. Others noted that in an ideal scenario, all judges would have their own courtrooms, but the harsh economic climate has made that impractical.
In the 6th Judicial Circuit, which covers Pasco and Pinellas counties, 69 judges use 54 courtrooms. Although Pasco officials have begun preliminary discussions about a new facility, circuit spokesman Ron Stuart said in an e-mail that judges there share courtrooms to maximize efficiency, optimize use of available courtrooms and save taxpayer money.
"While our chief judges are constantly planning for the future and relaying our projected needs," Stuart wrote, "our judges are more interested in helping all our citizens get through these rough times, and they are determined to work with what they are given."
In the same right, Merritt said, judges here have also made do for many years.
"We're all working," he said, "to do what we can do with what we have."
In Broward County, where the population is 10 times that of Hernando and where 90 judges have shared 70 courtrooms, officials are building a courthouse that will provide one courtroom for each judge.
Echoing Merritt's position, Hernando County Bar Association president Amanda Germann said the 1-to-1 ratio is also what's needed here.
"The position of the Bar Association is that we absolutely need more courtrooms," she said. "Whether we provide enough judicial space should not be dependent on the economic climate."
Many times, cases can't be settled, Germann said, until they're scheduled for trial. Defendants are often far more motivated to accept a plea agreement when their hearing is imminent. It's impossible, she said, to predict who will plead and who won't or how long their cases could require use of a courtroom.
Tamara Rice Lave, University of Miami associate professor of law, agreed with Germann's perspective that courtroom sharing is not optimal.
"If what happened in courtrooms was entirely predictable and planned and controlled," she said, "it would make a lot of sense."
In contrast, Zedalis, the UF law professor, said the idea that all judges should have their own courtrooms is more a product of outdated tradition than actual need.
In her experience, she said, judges sometimes run out of courtrooms because too many of them schedule hearings early in the week rather than booking less convenient late-week afternoons.
The Times' survey found that Hernando's seven courtrooms were in use Thursday and Friday afternoons just 20 percent of the time.
"It's not going to be possible to use the space there as you would classrooms in a school, but the concept that every judge needs his own courtroom is just not true," Zedalis said. "It's indefensible."
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Officials have discussed the question of how to handle the judiciary's space needs for more than a decade.
A $179,000 study was commissioned in 2000 to address future needs for all county facilities. Among many findings, Orlando-based HLM Design/Carter Goble Associates recommended the construction of a new freestanding judicial complex on the property behind the current government center.
Five years later, as the county approached the pinnacle of the building boom and as arrests and case loads climbed toward all-time highs, an updated study suggested even more judicial space was needed.
Merritt appeared before the commission with State Attorney Brad King, Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai and Public Defender Howard "Skip" Babb, pleading the case for new courtrooms — at least two at that time — in 2006.
Since then, Merritt has regularly visited the commission as it has debated where to put a judicial center. They have struggled with funding, knowing that the $18.6 million officially set aside in 2009 wasn't enough to complete the project while the county also didn't have the bonding capacity to borrow the amount needed.
Commissioners sought public/private partnership proposals and ultimately, as the county faced financial hardships, abandoned the idea of a freestanding building. In 2009, they chose to build one new courtroom, the county's seventh, in the old jury assembly room.
At the time, Merritt was grateful, but he warned the commission of further needs as new judges are brought into the circuit.
"A makeshift courtroom will be helpful, but it's like putting a Band-Aid on an amputation,'' he told commissioners in 2009. "Our needs have not changed."
Nicolai noted that although annual case loads have decreased in recent years, judges must still deal with hefty backlogs. That includes more than 3,000 foreclosures, though most of those cases are not handled in courtrooms.
Nicolai declined last week to offer an opinion on the need for more courtroom space, but said she believes the general demand for additional courtrooms a few years ago was largely prompted by the intense growth across the county at the time.
"I think while we were really growing, that's when the concern came," she said. "If that growth had continued, we would have certainly needed something now."
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On Tuesday, commissioners will discuss the issue and take into consideration a proposal by County Administrator David Hamilton to convert the newest portions of the government complex into judicial space. It would add three courtrooms and move core county offices into the historic courthouse, built in 1913.
The need for more judicial space is at the center of much of that discussion, but several commissioners said last week that the research conducted by the Times raises more questions.
"I'm tempted to say 'I told you so,' but I don't want to be flippant,'' said Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who has raised questions about the need for more courtrooms for several years. "It's what I expected all along.''
He called the courtroom usage statistics "great news for our budget deficit. Now we can slide that $12 million over to the general fund, where it's needed.''
Commissioner David Russell called the statistics "eye opening.''
What the numbers indicate is that with a good plan to reshuffle courthouse uses, Russell said, "we should be able to accommodate the courts needs within our own space for years to come.''
For commission Chairman Jim Adkins, the usage survey confirmed what he had already noticed.
"You have found the same thing that I had," he said. "I was looking at anything other than building new courtrooms."
He said he spoke with Merritt more than a year ago and was told that calendars were set in advance, and that when cases settled out of court there was no time to reschedule the courtrooms. Adkins suggested different scheduling options and night court, he said, but Merritt "shot me down'' on each suggestion.
"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."
Staff writers Dan DeWitt, Greg Hamilton, Tony Marrero, Logan Neill, Will Vragovic and news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1432.