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Judges feud over where to put federal courthouse

Two of Florida's U.S. District judges differ over where a new federal courthouse should be built _ Tampa or St. Petersburg. Judge Gerald Tjoflat of Jacksonville wants the new building in Tampa. Tjoflat, chief judge of the region that includes Tampa, said last year that the area's judges speak with one voice on the location.

Not so, says Tjoflat's colleague, Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich. Kovachevich, who lives in Pinellas County, would like a federal courthouse built in St. Petersburg. She complained in an interview Wednesday that her fellow judges have not been given the opportunity to vote on the question.

"I can assure you that it would not have been unanimous," she said.

The dispute surfaced Wednesday during testimony by U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, before a House Public Works subcommittee weighing arguments about where to place the new courthouse. No decision was made.

Pinellas County leaders say the lack of a federal courthouse on St. Petersburg's side of Tampa Bay denies people their constitutional right to access to the judiciary. The travel time to Tampa boosts the size of legal bills for Pinellas residents, they say.

But Hillsborough County leaders, including U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Tampa, say their overcrowded court facilities are spread among four different buildings. Gibbons suggested Pinellas County get a satellite courtroom in the future.

At Wednesday's hearing, Young recalled Kovachevich's mounting ire during a meeting two days earlier with local lawyers to discuss bringing a federal courthouse to Pinellas County.

Young said he showed her a May 29, 1990, letter from Tjoflat: "the judges of the Middle District of Florida (including those resident in the Tampa Division), speaking with one voice," have requested the courthouse be built in Tampa.

Upon hearing that, Kovachevich "almost went into a rage, if federal judges are allowed to go into a rage," Young recounted. She then had the clerk of the court investigate whether any vote on the matter had been taken by the judges of the Middle District, which includes Tampa.

"There is absolutely nothing that would indicate there has been a vote taken," Kovachevich said Wednesday.

Explaining the contradiction, Young said: "The last thing I want to do is get in a fight with a federal judge." He added that a federal judge has an obligation to be up front.

"He (Tjoflat) said one thing in the letter, and one of his federal judges said something very different," Young said.

Tjoflat could not be reached for comment Wednesday. He noted in a letter to the subcommittee Tuesday that the Judicial Council of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, an advisory group of judges, approved a request to put the court in Tampa.

For her part, Kovachevich said Wednesday the foundation of the advisory group's decision was in question because it was based on the mistaken notion that the judges had voted to endorse the Tampa site.

She refused to say Tjoflat had misrepresented her position and instead offered this interpretation of the difference: the one voice Tjoflat wrote of was his own, as chief judge.

An official with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) said Wednesday the judges must settle their feud and agree on a single site before the GSA and Congress can act. "It's very difficult for the GSA to step in the middle of that," David Bibb, the GSA official, told the subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds. "It seems to me the internal operations of the court is a court decision."

In another development, Young said the St. Petersburg City Council voted to donate 4.6-acres of land at M.L. King (Ninth) Street and First Avenue S valued at $2.5-million to the federal government for the new courthouse. City officials say that move would speed construction.