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Florida Supreme Court might use some of appeal court's 'Taj Mahal'

Construction is under way on the 1st District Court of Appeal’s new courthouse outside Tallahassee, shown here on Sept. 1.

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Construction is under way on the 1st District Court of Appeal’s new courthouse outside Tallahassee, shown here on Sept. 1.

TALLAHASSEE — The "Taj Mahal'' may be getting a new tenant.

The Florida Supreme Court is considering a move to take 12,000 square feet of the 112,000-square-foot building under construction for the 1st District Court of Appeal and instead use the space for some of the state court system's administrative staff.

In a letter this week, Chief Justice Charles T. Canady said the move could save $287,000 a year, the rent the Office of the State Court Administrator pays for its current offices near the state Capitol.

Moving the administrative staff into the new building would require some remodeling of the 1st DCA courthouse, which is nearing completion at Southwood, about 6 miles east of the Capitol. The building was designed to include extra judicial offices for future use.

Canady's letter was to Linda South, secretary of the Department of Management Services, the agency that builds and operates most state buildings. DMS says it would cost about $532,000 to retrofit the building to house the administrative staff.

The chief justice copied his letter to Paul Hawkes, the chief judge of the 1st DCA. In an earlier letter to Hawkes, the chief justice asked the district court to review its current needs and allow others to use part of the building after Senate appropriations chairman J.D. Alexander urged state agencies to reduce costs where possible.

Hawkes replied to Canady's earlier note that he would be glad to let the administrative staff use some space, but it would be difficult given the configuration of the building, which was designed to accommodate growth in areas scattered across the building. He said there was "a spot here and a spot there'' that could be used.

Hawkes did not return a request for comment Friday.

The new district courthouse was designed to give each judge 60-inch flat TV screens, private bathrooms and kitchens, granite countertops, mahogany trimmings, etched glass decorative seals and other amenities.

DMS has since rejected the 60-inch TV screens after publicity about what has come to be known as the Taj Mahal and criticism from legislators who said they had no idea the court was constructing such a lavish building.

The $48 million courthouse is patterned after the Michigan Supreme Court building. It was financed primarily with money from a $33.5 million bond issue authorized the last day of the 2007 legislative session in an amendment slipped into a 142-page transportation bill.

Many lawmakers who voted on the bill have since said they were unaware that it included a bond issue for the courthouse.

The same day lawmakers approved the bond issue, Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, sponsor of the amendment, said the move would allow the district court's old building in downtown Tallahassee to be shared by the Florida State University Law School and the court's administrative staff.

But in the months that followed, FSU gained sole possession of the old building. It left the court staff out of the deal, which is why the state court administrator would have to continue to pay its $287,000 annual rent.

To avoid that, Chief Justice Canady now wants some of the court system's administrative staff to move into the new courthouse. The remaining administrative staff works in the Supreme Court building.

Florida's Constitution makes the chief justice the chief administrative officer of the entire judicial system.

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

Florida Supreme Court might use some of appeal court's 'Taj Mahal' 10/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 1, 2010 10:56pm]
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