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Federal courts for free

The U.S. courthouse in Tampa, which is one of the nation's most overcrowded federal court divisions, now has a judicial savior. Pinellas County government has offered a three-story building in downtown St. Petersburg, and the rent is impossible to beat: It is free.

How soon can the judges move in?

The offer, which came in the form of a County Commission resolution Tuesday, is the clear short-term answer to the bottleneck in U.S. Middle District Court. Two months ago, federal officials set up one courtroom in the county's judicial building in St. Petersburg, and the commission now has made it possible for them to expand in a way that will make U.S. taxpayers happy. The commission has agreed to let the U.S. District Court use the County Courthouse Annex at 150 Fifth St. N.

That building, which currently houses county court and county government offices, holds about 39,000 square feet of space. It is connected to the county judicial building, where holding facilities are available for criminal defendants, and has ample parking for court personnel and visitors. That it also is being offered rent-free makes it an ideal solution to the court overflow in the Tampa division.

The benefit would run both ways, of course. By accommodating the temporary needs of the federal courts, Pinellas court activists intend to show the need and efficiency of having two courthouses in the Tampa Bay region. Of the 14 counties in Florida that already have federal courthouses, 11 have smaller populations and 10 have smaller caseloads than Pinellas. In fact, in Bankruptcy Court alone, more cases were filed from Pinellas last year than in the entire 23-county northern court district.

A congressional committee has appropriated money to buy land for a new Tampa court facility, which is entirely appropriate. But the need to consolidate and upgrade Tampa facilities does not alleviate the need in Pinellas for its own court operation. A facility in St. Petersburg would provide better federal court access to more than 1-million people, and the caseload alone justifies it. At least two long-term options in the downtown exist, and both offer savings to the federal government: A 4.6-acre piece of land the city is willing to donate; and the William C. Cramer Federal Building, which is scheduled to be vacated in the next three years.

The County Commission, with the persuasive work of such local attorneys as Anthony Battaglia, Jack Helinger and Catherine Prats, has laid out the welcome mat. When the federal court accepts the invitation, it will see first-hand the wisdom of bringing U.S. justice to St. Petersburg.