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Court headquarters proposed for Tampa

Three bills in the Legislature could create a new appellate court district for Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Judges and city officials are working to bring a new appellate court headquarters to the northern fringe of downtown Tampa.

Three bills in the Legislature would carve out a separate judicial district for Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, now included in the 2nd District Court of Appeal, said the court's chief judge, David Patterson. The new district, part of a larger restructuring of appellate courts, would be called the 6th DCA.

"I believe the 6th DCA should be in Tampa and am asking (that) this will happen, as opposed to being in Pinellas County," he told City Council members Thursday.

Patterson said he also expected the Legislature will approve between $10-million and $12-million this year to build the appellate court headquarters.

The city is considering donating 3.5 acres on the 1100 block of Tampa Street, now a city parking lot with nearly 300 spaces, said Fernando Noriega, the city's administrator of development.

Patterson envisions a four-story courthouse with a courtroom, offices and parking for about 90 employees.

Money for the project could become available as soon as July 1, he said, and it would take about two years to complete the building.

"It would be an ideal location," Patterson said. "This facility would anchor the northern development of downtown."

The 2nd DCA encompasses 14 counties, from Pasco south to Collier. More than half its cases come from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco, Patterson said. The court is based in Lakeland and has a branch office on the top floor of Hillsborough County Courthouse Annex.

The appellate court is already tight on space at the annex, Patterson said. Hillsborough Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez has been reluctant to extend the lease when it expires in five years because his courts also need more room, Patterson said.

The 2nd DCA now serves an area with more than 4-million residents, stretching down to Naples. It needs to be divided to split up the heavy caseload, said Judge E.J. Salcines, a member of the 2nd DCA.

State Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa, said creating a new district should help move cases faster.

"I think it's a pretty good idea," Grant said. "I don't believe in making government bigger. But we live in a litigious society, and you have a right to have your day in court in a timely manner. And I think that's the direction in which we're moving."

It's unclear how many judges would be based in the new district. The 2nd DCA now has 14 judges. Some of them would be relocated to the new district. The court rarely meets as a group. Instead, decisions are heard by three-judge panels.

The restructuring is in response to a Supreme Court study, Grant said.