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Judge oversees Tampa's new federal courthouse // U.S. courthouse is "topped out'

As chief judge of one of the largest and busiest federal court districts in the country, Elizabeth Kovachevich has lots to do: try cases, hire staff, attend meetings _ and build multimillion-dollar courthouses.

Thursday morning, the latter task took Kovachevich from the comfort of her chambers in Tampa's historic federal court to a windblown construction site 370 feet atop the new federal courthouse one block away.

She didn't seem to mind.

Climbing inside the cage of a temporary elevator with a crew of officials and contractors, Kovachevich stood by the control button like a blue-collar veteran.

"We ready? We're going," she said as she engaged the hoist. "C'mon baby."

Fourteen floors later, she led the novices in the group up 100 feet of steep wooden ladders.

"Be careful," she urged. "Watch your head. See this beam?"

Once on the roof, Kovachevich pulled the rope that raised an 18-foot-long American flag atop a 20-foot steel mast. As a stiff wind held the flag proudly aloft, the judge took a moment from all the hand-shaking to remove her pink hard hat, cover her heart with her right hand and stare.

"I love it," she said. "This is what it's all about."

The flag raising, along with the mounting of the more traditional red cypress tree later in the day, marked the official "topping out" of the $58-million courthouse, the first of four such projects Kovachevich likely will oversee during her term as chief judge for Florida's Middle District. Ground was broken this month for a new courthouse in Fort Myers, one is in the design phase for Jacksonville, and officials are lining up appropriations for a major addition to the Orlando federal courthouse.

The Tampa facility will feature 17 courtrooms for district, magistrate and bankruptcy judges, as well as space for the clerk's staff, files, the U.S. Marshals Service and meetings.

Downtown boosters see the building, where about 450 people will work, spurring redevelopment in the area's north end.

General Services Administration project superintendent Pat Feheley said the work is about 60 percent complete, with a tentative move-in date of October 1997. Clark Construction is the general contractor, and about 300 workers are at the site daily.

Thursday, many of those tradesman and laborers shared a lunch of barbecued pork ribs, potato salad and brownies with judges and FBI agents. Soft jazz from Kenny G blared from speakers.

Bills are pending in Congress to name the new courthouse after retiring U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Tampa.

"I'm awed by not only its enormous size and beauty, but I'm further awed by the work that will be done here," Gibbons said during the afternoon ceremony.

No matter whose name goes on the front, the new courthouse will long bear the mark of "Judge K" as well. Since becoming chief judge in January, she has been shepherding the project, from security concerns down to carpet colors.

Kovachevich's own chambers will attach to the large ceremonial courtroom on the top floor. On Thursday, an intricate honeycomb of braces held up the ceiling, 35 feet high. Even the typical courtrooms in the building will have 22-foot ceilings, a feature some congressional critics have called excessive.

But the judge said size is important.

"Why do we wear a robe? Or sit at an elevated bench?" she asked. "It's an issue of control. It creates an aura, an impression, of who's in charge."

_ Times staff writer Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.

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