TALLAHASSEE — Most hearings in Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal are held on the second floor of a rented school building near Tampa’s downtown.
The school’s windows aren’t bulletproof. Hearings are held in classroom spaces. A 2016 study commissioned by the Legislature said the judges needed a new courthouse built in Pinellas or Hillsborough counties.
Instead, the Florida Senate is proposing spending $50 million this year on a new courthouse in Lakeland, about 35 miles to the east
The abrupt decision to build a new courthouse in Lakeland — and away from population centers in Tampa Bay — drew rare objections from lawmakers on Wednesday and pit two neighboring regions and their representatives against each other.
The $50 million was included in this year’s Senate’s budget, which is controlled by Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Republican who lives in Lakeland. Her husband, John Stargel, lives there, too.
He’s a judge on the 2nd District Court of Appeal.
Without mentioning Stargel’s husband, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, urged his colleagues to strip the money out of the budget and reassign it to a courthouse in Pinellas County, a direct public challenge to a fellow Republican that’s rare in Florida’s GOP-dominated capital.
Although the 2nd District Court of Appeal covers a sprawling area from Pasco County to Naples and as far east as Lake Okeechobee, the majority of the court’s judges, employees, lawyers and legal cases are based in Tampa Bay, Brandes said.
“It will be a significant disruption to the court and my constituents to have to now move away from a location that has been in the Tampa Bay market since 1980 and conduct their business solely in the Lakeland location,” he said Wednesday.
The main argument in removing it from Tampa Bay’s metro centers, he added, is “because we can.”
Stargel said she took “great offense” to that comment.
“I’m not doing this just because I can,” she said. “I think it’s appropriate for my community.”
The main courthouse has been based in Lakeland since the 1950s, when the town was a central location for the sprawling court district, which hears appeals from trial courts.
Since then, the court’s jurisdiction has shrank as the state has added additional appellate districts. In 1980, the court started renting a facility in Tampa to handle the area’s growing caseload. In 2016, the crumbling, mold-ridden Lakeland courthouse was shuttered, and since then, the court’s caseload has been handled nearly entirely out of rented space at the Stetson Tampa Law Center.
“Little by little, law firms and attorneys have been moving over the last 20 years to Tampa, taking businesses, taking jobs and opportunities from my area,” Stargel said.
Stargel said state law requires the courthouse to be in Lakeland, and that other district courts of appeal are not based on population. The 1st District Court of Appeal is based in Tallahassee, not Jacksonville, and the 5th District Court of Appeal is based in Daytona Beach, not Orlando, she noted.
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“While you’re correct the Legislature in the 1950s established the 2nd (District Court of Appeal) in the Lakeland area, the simple truth is that times have changed,” Brandes responded.
Stargel said after the meeting that her husband being a judge was “irrelevant” to the debate. Her husband was appointed to the court by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year.
“I have been pushing for this long before he was a judge (on the 2nd District Court of Appeal),” she said.
Last year, lawmakers assigned $21 million to a new courthouse in St. Petersburg, but that got wiped out when it was included in $1 billion in pandemic-related vetoes by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Senators voted down his amendment. The budget could still get amended by the House, which doesn’t include money for the courthouse.
Times/Herald staff writer Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.
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