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Tampa appellate judges long for a home (without bullets)

Four of Florida's five district appellate courts have secure courthouses. But the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which meets in Tampa, leases space in the Stetson Law Center near downtown. In May, a stray bullet pierced a judge's third-floor office window and richoted near his stand-up work station. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Aug. 10, 2018

TAMPA — The bullet pierced a third-floor window and blew glass shards over a desk and chairs. A security officer noticed spiderweb cracks in the pane when he arrived at work on Memorial Day.

In a report, police described the location as an "empty school building." But the Stetson Tampa Law Center, near downtown, isn't only a law school building. It's the de facto home base of the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

Had Florida appellate Judge Daniel H. Sleet been at his desk, he could have been shot in the head, a fellow judge concluded.

The stray round, assumed to be the product of celebratory gunfire, underscores a persistent problem that has frustrated the court's 16 judges: They are a court with no secure courthouse, only leased offices at Stetson.

"A courthouse is supposed to have a hardened building and bulletproof glass," said appellate Judge Robert Morris, the court's point-person in discussions of a new building. "But we're not a courthouse."

Their old facility — a crumbling, mold-plagued structure in Lakeland — became uninhabitable in 2016. Since then, judges have operated almost entirely out of the Stetson building, a satellite campus of the university's Gulfport-based College of Law.

It is where they hear oral arguments, and it is where they cram into offices that in some cases are not much bigger than college dorm rooms. The court doesn't control access or the perimeter of the building.

Despite the court's pleas to the Florida Legislature, there are no concrete plans to fund a new courthouse anytime soon.

"I think the four other DCA's have had their spending needs addressed," said 2nd District Chief Judge Edward LaRose.

"We're the last one. We think a modernized facility is important not only for the judges and their staff, but to provide good quality work and services to the litigants in our 14-county jurisdiction."

• • •

The 2nd district was established in the mid-1950s as one of three state appellate courts.

Back then, Polk County sat near the geographic center of the district, which stretched from Orlando to Fort Lauderdale, and from Brooksville to Naples.

Today, the state has five appellate courts, which consider appeals from the trial courts in their respective districts. The 2nd District encompasses 14 counties in southwest Florida, from Pasco to Collier, and receives about 6,000 new cases per year.

The court's home for more than 50 years was a single-story concrete block structure known as the Lawton M. Chiles Courthouse, which stood in a mostly industrial area of Lakeland.

In 1980, the court began leasing space in Tampa to manage the large number of cases that came from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Over the years, judges spent time in the Stovall Professional Building, the TECO Plaza Building and the Hillsborough Courthouse Annex. In 2004, they moved to the newly constructed Stetson Tampa Law Center, near the Hillsborough River.

Talk of a new courthouse cropped up periodically.

"I've been on the court 13 years and it's been a topic of conversation since I've been here," LaRose said.

The years that followed saw persistent problems dogging the aging Chiles courthouse. The building had poor air quality, with mold and fungus growing inside air handlers.

Judges and court employees complained of feeling ill.

Space was also an issue. Metal carts loaded with court files lined hallways. And not all judges had their own offices.

A 2016 study predicted that the building's roof would collapse if not replaced. The decaying roof was believed to be contributing to gypsum particles and other irritants that were diminishing the air quality.

Late that year, the court abandoned the Chiles building, taking up full-time residence in Tampa.

• • •

A three-story Mediterranean Revival-style structure, Stetson Tampa Law Center sits just north of Interstate 275, a short walk from the east bank of the Hillsborough River.

Although some law classes and private functions occur there, the court is the building's chief occupant, Morris said.

Last year, the state spent more than $600,000 to lease 26,700 square feet of the Stetson space — more than one-third of the building. Eight judges occupy suites on the third floor. The others, including Sleet, are crammed into small offices, with adjacent cubicles for their judicial assistants and law clerks.

The court's marshal, Jo Haynes, handles security with the help of Stetson security officers and contracted Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies.

Visitors to public court hearings sign in at the front desk before going through a basic screening that includes a handheld metal detector.

The William Reece Smith courtroom, on the first-floor, is a classroom where Stetson students practice mock trials. It is also where the court hears oral arguments. The room is not included in the court's rent, but Stetson lets the judges use it.

A smaller classroom on the second floor, with seating for about 20 people, is used when the first-floor room is occupied.

The availability of only two courtrooms, which double as classrooms, makes scheduling tight, Morris said.

State law requires the court to maintain its headquarters in Lakeland — and, technically, it still does. The court's clerk works there, out of leased office space, along with about 33 other employees. Two judges keep offices in both locations.

Of the 104 people employed by the court, 70 work in Tampa.

The 2nd District is the only state appeals court with operations divided between two counties.

Two years ago, the Legislature commissioned a $100,000 study of the court's location and space needs. The study, completed by the National Center for State Courts and a commercial real estate firm, examined population growth trends, case load statistics and staffing numbers.

Among its conclusions: The court should consolidate into a single courthouse in either Tampa or St. Petersburg.

Little has happened since.

"It would be disingenuous to say it isn't frustrating," Morris said. "But we do understand the process. And the process is complicated and difficult."

• • •

State Sen. Kelli Stargel, whose legislative district includes Lakeland, opposes the court leaving Polk County. It has been headquartered in her community for more than a half-century. And, she said, it brings jobs to the area.

"I haven't seen a compelling reason why having a courthouse in Tampa meets the needs of the public any more than having a courthouse in Lakeland," the Republican lawmaker said.

Of the court's 16 judges, only one lives in Polk County. Another lives in Manatee County. All the rest live in either Hillsborough or Pinellas.

Most of the court's employees — including judicial assistants, staff attorneys, clerks, and administrative staff — also live in the areas closest to Tampa Bay, the study found. About one-third live in Polk County.

About half of the court's cases come from Hillsborough or Pinellas. Only 13 percent come from Polk.

Stargel noted that the cost to build in downtown Tampa would be more expensive than in Lakeland.

The 2016 study put the price range for a new courthouse in Tampa at $32 million to $33 million. That doesn't include land acquisition, which could drive the cost over $40 million.

The numbers conjure memories of the infamous "Taj Mahal," a pejorative nickname for the home of the Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal. The opulent behemoth opened in 2010 at a public cost of $48 million, generating controversy — and a state investigation — over its excesses.

Stargel said she has proposed two potential sites in Polk County, without success.

"It seems as though the only thing the 2nd DCA would be open to is moving to downtown Tampa," she said. "That is what the impasse has been. If we're going to build a new courthouse, I want to be fiscally responsible in how we do it."

The most recent discussions have centered on purchasing and remodeling the Stetson building. Stetson has been involved in the discussions, a school spokeswoman said.

"I think, generally, people know that Tampa is the site that makes the most sense," said State Representative Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican.

In the last legislative session, the House of Representatives put more than $10 million toward a new facility, Sprowls said. But the Senate wouldn't agree to it and the allocation was cut from the final budget.

Lawmakers funded a new courthouse in 2016 for the 4th District Court of Appeal, based in West Palm Beach. It opened in January.

Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, said he wants to make the 2nd District Court of Appeal a priority in next year's session. He was particularly alarmed at news of the shooting.

"That's unacceptable," he said. "We need to get on the same page, if for no other reason than to address the safety issues."

• • •

An indentation marks the drywall about a foot below the ceiling in Judge Sleet's office. It is where the bullet ricocheted after smashing the window.

Below it is his desk, where he stands as he works.

Police investigated, but no one was arrested.

"Obviously you're fearful that there is somebody that's got something out for you," Sleet said. "But no. Nobody knows we're here."

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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