The time was 1986. I was 27 years old, the Dade County Courthouse was 60 years old, and I was litigating to trial one of my first "big" cases in the chambers of Judge Murray Goldman.
I appreciated the grandeur and sanctity of the historic courthouse. I remember walking up the north steps of the courthouse and entering the lobby through the revolving door, dressed as the associate lawyer in my Polo red-and-blue-striped tie, my wingtip Cole-Haan shoes and carrying my new (not-a-scratch-on-it) leather Mark Cross briefcase.
remember thinking that the layouts of the courtrooms and chambers were quirky and tight to navigate. No two courtrooms or chambers were alike. Many had structural columns oddly placed in them, virtually blocking the sight lines among counsel tables, the jurors and the bench.
New lawyers learned quickly that the best and more spacious bathrooms were located on the third floor. And the quietest place to prepare for motion calendar hearings was in the expansive third-floor law library. All quirky configurations, yet dignified and workable.
But more than 30 years later, as we all know, the allure of the courthouse has vanished. The majority of the 144 support columns are compromised structurally, and a large number of them have been labeled "in emergency status."
For periods of time, anyone approaching the courthouse was met with broken and missing entrance steps, makeshift ramps for people with disabilities, extreme pigeon waste, fencing and scaffolding erected to repair the deteriorating and dangerous exterior of the courthouse, and the off-putting annual winter visits of the vultures encircling the courthouse's upper floors. Yes, our legal community has rallied to embrace and support the historic anniversaries of the courthouse and has overseen raising funds to restore the beauty of the courthouse lobby and the mezzanine floor.
However, inside, the courthouse remains a sick, even dying building. At any given time, according to Chief Circuit Judge Bertila Soto and Civil Administrative Judge Jennifer D. Bailey, numerous entire floors, portions of floors, courtrooms and chambers are unusable and closed off because of the presence of mold, broken and unrepairable air-conditioning systems, poor air quality, plumbing problems, nonworking bathrooms, and intermittent flooding on lower floors.
Access for the disabled (lawyers, witnesses and jurors) to the courtrooms is minimal or non-existent. In fact, these judges keep a running log, now 102 pages (11-by-17 inches) of material complaints and needed emergency repairs dating from the resounding defeat of the county-wide $393 million bond issue vote in November 2014 until today. They also maintain and, to their extreme dismay, constantly update a photo review of the reported complaints and needed repairs spanning all floors of the courthouse, including embarrassing photos of growing mold and plumbing leaks resulting in urine dropping from the ceiling of a judge's chambers onto his desk.
No commercial or residential tenant would tolerate these dangerous conditions. Multiple lawsuits would be filed. More than $73 million is needed for repairs during the next three or four years, and another $48.5 million in repairs is projected for the period 2020-2025, according to the chief judge.
Fortunately, the Miami-Dade County Commission agrees with our judges that the county must build a new civil courthouse and that the county, as it is required to do so by the Florida Constitution, must find a way to fund and construct it. According to Commissioner Sally Heyman, who heads the county's public safety and health committee, which is overseeing the development of a new courthouse, the county already has identified approximately 10 county-owned locations in downtown Miami as possible sites for the new courthouse. The county is also looking at privately owned downtown sites.
Heyman says she has "no more patience" for delays and that the county "must get this [new courthouse construction] moving."
"I would love to see a shovel in the ground in early 2018," Heyman said last month. "This is on my shoulders and patience is not a virtue. I want this thing expedited. Nobody is debating the need anymore" for a new courthouse.
Heyman, Soto and Bailey agree that a new civil courthouse will cost approximately $400 million to construct and will include 600,000 square feet and approximately 50 courtrooms, 48 or more chambers, a private entrance for the judges, workable clerk areas, a jury room and food services areas for the lawyers, jurors and the public. The law library most probably will be located within the current public library at the Miami-Dade Cultural Center. And Heyman emphasized that the new courthouse will be a standalone civil courthouse, not part of a civic complex, definitely located in downtown near mass transit and immediately accessible to the at-large public.
Funding the construction is the $400 million question. Following the 2014 defeat of the general obligation bond issue and more recently with renewed urgency, the county has been exploring P3 development, a private-public partnership option where a real estate developer, following appropriate bids, will acquire the land, front the costs and build the courthouse. The county would lease the building, presumably with an option to buy it within 30 years, or the county otherwise will find the funds to acquire it in the nearer future.
What the 73 W. Flagler St. courthouse may become upon the opening of the new courthouse is also an interesting thought ... but let's work diligently and purposefully with the county and our judges to get that first shovel in the ground as soon as possible in 2018.
Jeffrey Gilbert is a litigation shareholder in the Miami office of Cozen O'Connor, specializing in real estate, probate and trust, and complex commercial litigation. He has been litigating cases in the Miami-Dade County Courthouse since 1983. He plans to follow the funding, development and construction issues related to the new courthouse, continue meeting and speaking with judges and Heyman on these courthouse issues.