TALLAHASSEE — Maybe the 1st District Court of Appeal shouldn't get to move into its posh new digs? Maybe the Florida Supreme Court would like a new building?
That was the question asked in the Florida Senate on Tuesday as an appropriations committee took aim at the building many call a "Taj Mahal."
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-Port Richey, chaired the first meeting of the Senate Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations. He discussed plans to look into how the Tallahassee appellate court managed to get taxpayers to pay for a $48.8 million courthouse filled with African mahogany, granite desks and countertops, and kitchens and bathrooms for each of the 15 judges.
Fasano said Senate President Mike Haridopolos is as concerned about the new building as he is and discussed with him the possibility of giving the building to the state's highest court instead of letting the district court of appeal move in.
Fasano wants his committee to look into how, in the midst of a budget crisis, a few judges from the court were able to lobby their way into such a magnificent building.
"I hope we can put more court employees over there," Fasano said. "And maybe we should ask the Florida Supreme Court if it would like to move over there. All options should be on the table."
Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said the issue has not been raised with the court.
Judge Robert Benton, the newly named chief judge at the 1st District, said his court is "happy to cooperate with the Supreme Court or anyone else in the judicial branch." Benton recently was named to replace Judge Paul M. Hawkes as chief of the court.
Hawkes, the driving force behind the new courthouse, recently was asked to step down as chief by Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Canady.
Hawkes and Judge Brad Thomas, both former legislative staffers, lobbied for years to get the money for the new courthouse and directed the building project. A state audit has accused the judges of bullying state employees who were charged with supervising construction, and spending millions of extra taxpayer dollars to install expensive luxuries.
Noting that the district court has built a building twice the size of its current home in downtown Tallahassee, Fasano said he thinks the only way taxpayers can get their money out of the building would be to house others there.
"I want to make sure this doesn't happen again," Fasano added.
Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, suggested a punishment for the judges: Set the thermostats at 80 in summer and 50 in winter.
"My concern is if we do that we'll have all 15 judges over here lobbying us instead of only two," Fasano joked.
Next month, the committee will attempt to question those involved in getting the funds and building the new courthouse. Fasano said he can't force the judges and others to testify, but the committee will ask them to appear.
Someone needs to answer questions, he said.
Lucy Morgan can be reached at [email protected]