State lawmakers agree on new Bernie McCabe Courthouse in Pinellas County

The location led to an unusual clash between two powerful Republican lawmakers.
Pinellas Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe.
Pinellas Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published April 24, 2021|Updated April 24, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers agreed Friday night to spend $50 million on a new courthouse in Pinellas County named after former State Attorney Bernie McCabe.

The new site of the 2nd District Court of Appeal would be called the Bernie McCabe Courthouse in honor of the late Pinellas-Pasco state attorney, who died in January after serving as the area’s top prosecutor for nearly three decades.

Both the location and the name of the courthouse were a top priority of House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a former prosecutor who worked for McCabe. He spoke in support for a Pinellas courthouse named after his former boss a week after his passing.

But Sprowls’ priority clashed with that of another powerful Republican lawmaker: Senate Appropriations Chair Kelli Stargel, who wanted the new courthouse built in her hometown of Lakeland, the official headquarters for the court district. Stargel’s husband was appointed as a judge for the district by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year.

Related: Courthouse site sparks rare public GOP conflict in Florida Legislature

In a statement Saturday, Sprowls applauded Stargel and hinted that her hometown could still benefit from the plan.

“This is step one in a multi-year plan to address the unique needs of the area that now comprises the 2nd (District Court of Appeal),” Sprowls said, referring to Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Hardee, Highlands, Polk, DeSoto, Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, Glades, Collier, Hendry and Lee counties. “Senator Stargel has always been a staunch advocate for Polk County, and her long-term vision for addressing the juridical needs of the area will be realized.”

The exact location of the Bernie McCabe Courthouse has yet to be determined. The agreement lawmakers reached on Friday requires the site to be on state or local land. If that isn’t available, the courts would work with the state to find another location in Pinellas County.

Lakeland is the official site in state law for the sprawling district, which handles trial court appeals from Pasco County to Naples and as far east as Lake Okeechobee.

However, the majority of the court’s cases, judges, employees and attorneys are from Tampa Bay, and studies have recommended the new courthouse be built in Hillsborough or Pinellas counties.

Stargel said last month she wanted the new courthouse built in Lakeland in part because her hometown’s legal community has been shrinking since 1980, when the 2nd District Court of Appeal started renting space in Tampa to handle the area’s growing caseload.

The court’s cases are now being held in rented classroom space near downtown Tampa, a site that doesn’t have bulletproof windows. The crumbling, mold-infested Lakeland courthouse has been uninhabitable since 2016.

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Last year, lawmakers approved $21 million for a new courthouse in St. Petersburg, but Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed it along with $1 billion in other projects.

When Stargel allotted $50 million for a new courthouse in Lakeland last month, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, objected. Requiring the majority of people who use the court to commute 35 miles east to Lakeland each day would be a “significant disruption,” he said.

Brandes said senators were placing the courthouse in Lakeland simply “because we can,” something that Stargel said gave her “great offense.”

“I’m not doing this just because I can,” Stargel said during a Senate committee meeting last month. “I think it’s appropriate for my community.”

McCabe was a giant in Tampa Bay’s legal and political community, where he was known as a mentor to young lawyers, a whip-smart litigator and an advocate for crime victims, police officers and children. He served for 20 years on the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board and was one of the first state attorneys in Florida to start drug and veterans’ treatment courts.

After his death, Sprowls wrote to county commissioners asking they rename the Pinellas County Justice Center, where prosecutors and public defenders have offices, after McCabe.

McCabe “left an unrivaled legacy in the pantheon of Florida justice seekers,” Sprowls wrote.

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