In courtroom lingo, Hernando commissioners were a hung jury.
After more than two hours of discussion of an issue that first surfaced 11 years ago, the commission voted 4-1 to move forward on all three proposals from County Administrator David Hamilton: Gather more input on his plan to turn the county administration building exclusively into a judicial center; survey other county space to figure out where to put displaced constitutional officers; and hire an appraiser to determine if it is worth buying/leasing space in two privately owned buildings in downtown Brooksville.
In other words, the commission didn't really know what to do — or which constituency to offend — so they picked every course of action.
Only Commissioner Jeff Stabins objected. He doubted the need for additional court space. It was a reasonable suspicion given the recent three-week survey of courtroom use by the Times that found the seven courtrooms sitting idle nearly 60 percent of the time, a falling case load, and plenty of circuit courts elsewhere in the state that also require judges to share courtrooms.
Commissioner John Druzbick called the discussion premature because he, too, said he wasn't sure of the courts' space needs. Then he voted with the majority anyway. Note to lawyers: Druzbick's easy-to-sway mentality should get him picked for a jury every time.
Commissioner David Russell wanted no part of buying the SunTrust Bank building or leasing space from the former Brooksville Regional Hospital, but acquiesced to including the appraisals to gather support from other commissioners.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes wanted the appraisal information as a counter-balance to the still-to-be-determined costs of Hamilton's plan to move county staffers and the property appraiser and tax collector from the Government Center and remodeling those offices into more courtrooms. By ordering up the appraisals, the commission also keeps alive the possibility of appeasing banker Jim Kimbrough, who is offering to sell to the county his own under-used building, the downtown SunTrust Bank.
Hamilton's plan has attractive qualities. It would move the commissioners into the 1913 courthouse that has been preserved for historical significance but under used as a functioning courtroom or meeting space. Also, Hamilton's idea can be done piecemeal, which should temper some of the immediate cost concerns.
The best evidence of the need for more court space may have been the images of the State Attorney's offices that showed files and file boxes stacked along the hallways. Nobody argued that the prosecutors work in cluttered surroundings and could use more storage space.
Another sound reason to accommodate courtroom activity is the need to provide a safe environment for family court. Conducting such emotional hearings in the closed-quarters of a judge's chambers presents security risks and trying to minimize those confrontations is understandable. (The origins of the area's enhanced courtroom security from armed bailiffs to metal detectors dates to a late 1980s shooting death of a woman by her estranged husband in the Pasco County Courthouse as they waited for their divorce hearing to begin.) Except nobody presented hard evidence as to how many family court hearings are in chambers because of unavailable courtrooms.
Incredulously, the most often-repeated argument for a multimillion-dollar investment in additional courtrooms was lawyerly motivation. More courtrooms will allow more trials to be scheduled, which will induce attorneys and their clients to settle cases without having to argue before a judge and jury.
As proof, court officials cited a recent week in which litigants in 12 separate cases scheduled for trial all settled outside the courtroom.
Expecting the tax-paying public to swallow millions of dollars in capital construction costs tied to legal stall tactics is absurd. It simply encourages an inefficient system to continue status quo. Instead of building more courtrooms, how about if the robed jurists provide their own motivation to dawdling lawyers or their indecisive clientele.
And the average taxpayer, who will be footing the bill for the courthouse space, must be wondering: If they can go 12 for 12 in settled cases, why stop at scheduling just a dozen?
General Magistrate Gerrie Bishop, presented the case for added judicial space, by comparing courtrooms to restrooms. They aren't in use all of the time, but it is imperative they be available when needed.
That analogy shouldn't sway anybody. Instead of lobbying to spend $12 million to add three new courtrooms immediately, what's wrong with the judiciary doing what everyone else does when — using their comparison — a restroom is unavailable.
Most people just politely wait their turn.