Judge Ana Gardiner gave the Broward County Commission some dire-sounding news.
"Commissioners, we have run out of courtrooms," warned the top judge in the criminal division at a September 25 workshop. "We have not one spare courtroom in the criminal divisions, felony divisions of Broward County; we don't even have closets... We are completely out of space."
The mind reels with the chaos that could ensue. A complete meltdown of the justice system, lawyers without enough elbow room to talk on their cell phones, judges without a hook to hang their robes on at the end of the day.
Don't worry. Gardiner was only lying to the commission. There's space enough at the courthouse. In fact, even at its busiest times, there are several empty courtrooms to be found.
But don't blame Gardiner. She's just following in the footsteps of many other liars, inflators, coveters, prevaricators, and profiteers who have been warning of the demise of the old county courthouse for years.
The alarmist misinformation is part of an effort by the judiciary and the downtown business crowd to get a gleaming new tower of justice built. Their problem is that the people — those pesky, reprobate citizens who will actually pay for the thing — don't want it.
We know this because the commission put the issue on the ballot last November, asking the people to approve a $450 million bond to pay for a new courthouse. Voters defeated the referendum by a 60-40 spread.
You'd think that might have sent a message to commissioners that it was time to move on to another issue. But the commissioners, who are totally bought and sold on the idea, haven't stopped making their case. They say the problem isn't that their constituents don't want to fund a playground for lawyers and judges; it's that the officials didn't educate us well enough to know what's good for us.
In other words, their courthouse-is-crumbling propaganda didn't work, so they are trying, trying again.
In March, the county released its most terror-inducing salvo, the mushroom cloud of arguments for the new courthouse. It came in the form of a staff report that said, gasp, the courthouse might blow down if a Category 2 hurricane were to hit.
Forget that the existing courthouse survived Hurricane Wilma — a once-in-50-years storm — with broken windows, slight water damage, and a two-week shutdown (along with the rest of downtown). Forget that the county report didn't involve an engineering study or real evidence that the building isn't structurally sound (it is). Just listen to Mayor Josephus Eggelletion.
In a parroting March 12 article in the Sun-Sentinel regarding the flimsy hurricane report, Eggelletion warned of the day when a storm would hit and "justice in downtown Broward County comes to a halt."
You get the picture. Don't want to pay for a new courthouse? Then get used to Broward looking like a cross between Robocop and Mad Max.
It's not surprising that Eggelletion would resort to such ridiculous scare tactics. Along with John Rodstrom, he's the commission's closest ally to a powerful gaggle of downtown landlords, led on the courthouse campaign by lawyer William Scherer.
Scherer is a major campaign contributor whose career in public service includes a scandal-ridden tenure as chief counsel of the taxpayer-subsidized North Broward Hospital District. He owns millions of dollars worth of property next door to the new courthouse sites, which just might have a little something to do with why he's crying for the need of a new building. Scherer even hired former County Administrator Roger Desjarlais to help keep the county on board for the project.
In other words, the deal is wired; the fix is in. The hurricane report was only the most recent scare tactic to jolt the public into action. The week before the bond issue was up for a vote, the Sun-Sentinel published another insipid article that began this way:
"Mold, broken elevators, and crowded hallways plague Broward County's aging courthouse... "
Ah, mold, that old chestnut. I asked County Administrator Pete Corwin, who believes a new courthouse is needed and has worked on the plan for years, about that. He told me that there had been "sporadic reports" of mold and that they have been taken care of.
Tear the building down!
I hardly want to dignify the elevator complaint with a response. I, for one, spend a fair amount of time in the courthouse. The old elevators are slow, and I suppose they sometimes need repair. It's no reason to raze the building. Plus, there's a new set of elevators that get you to your floor quickly and easily.
And now on to the other plague: crowded hallways and Judge Gardiner's plea for more courtrooms and closet space. First, you have to understand that there are corridors in the courthouse where you can get lost and have no one within earshot to help you out. Whole wings seem to be ghost towns.
Now, I'm not going to make this about whether our well-paid judges are working very hard (even though we now know that ex-judge and wannabe TV star Larry Seidlin ditched the courthouse early almost every afternoon to play tennis). The question is whether there is space.
The answer is yes, and Broward attorney Bill Gelin, who runs the courthouse news and gossip-rich JAABlog, proved it. To test Gardiner's pronouncement, Gelin walked the entire courthouse, checking every courtroom. On September 27, a Thursday afternoon, he found 24 empty courtrooms at about 3 p.m. The following Monday morning, which is the busiest time at the courthouse, he found nine empty courtrooms. Later in the same afternoon, Gelin found 22 vacant.
Gelin's research only confirmed the obvious: The courthouse has plenty of space so long as the administration finds efficient ways to use it.
Mold, elevators, no space... all red herrings. The proponents even tried to bring rats into the equation, complaining that there were rodents roaming the building. Again, we follow the same peculiar logic: See a rat, tear the house down.
The press has reported the propaganda whole cloth. After the groundless hurricane report was released, the Sun-Sentinel published an editorial that began:
"How badly does Broward County need a new courthouse? Very, very badly. According to a staff analysis, parts of the existing building could collapse in a mere category 2 hurricane.
"And that's only part of the bleak picture. The building is extremely crowded, so much so that prisoners on their way to court must share the hallways with judges, lawyers and crime victims — hardly a safe situation. Also, elevators often don't work, windows leak and vermin roam the premises."
The newspaper's editorial side has always played blind cheerleader to the wealthy business crowd, so that's no surprise. And I'm not claiming that the courthouse is perfect. The place is old and a bit dingy. Corwin tells me that the air-conditioning system isn't up to code and that the plumbing isn't in great shape. Clerk of Court employees are crammed together. Not all bathrooms are accessible to disabled folk.
But it's like a good jalopy, not pretty, yet chugging along just fine. There will come a time that a new building will be needed, and there is county land available nearby to put it on.
The time, though, isn't now. Voters have already spoken, and recent embarrassments involving Broward judges (including the buffoonish Seidlin, pot-smoking Larry Korda, and ethically challenged debtor Robert Zack) certainly won't make the public any more eager to finance it. All the sky-is-falling hucksterism in the world won't change that.
The place for a new courthouse might not even be downtown. Gelin suggests that it may be a better idea to build a court complex in Pompano Beach, where many inmates are housed in jails. It would certainly be more efficient.
But that would get in the way of the downtown juggernaut and the judiciary — and, in the hard-wired world of Broward County, that just won't do.