Crumbling Injustice: Why Miami-Dade County is in Need of a New Civil Courthouse

BY BERTILA L. FERNANDEZ – Constantly called upon to meet the needs of the citizens of Miami-Dade County, the 11th Judicial Circuit has quickly outgrown the usefulness of the Miami-Dade County Courthouse. The centerpiece of downtown Miami, the Courthouse was built in 1925[1] and meant for a population of 100,000[2]. Today the population has grown to 2, 617, 176 million[3]. As of today 3,286 citizens visit the Miami- Dade County Courthouse daily[4].

As the hands of time continue to turn the building has remained static. Failing to be recertified, upgraded, and expanded to meet the needs of the county the building is crumbling due to the effects of age and time. The façade cracks, 132 of 144 columns deteriorate[5], and water intrudes fracturing the skeleton of Miami- Dade’s civil court system.

The State of Florida has always guaranteed its citizens access to courts. The 1838 Florida Constitution began the tradition and today the provision states that “the courts shall be opened to every person for redress. . .”[6] At a fundamental level a deteriorated courthouse is a stark violation of this right especially when the deterioration forces delay in the administration of justice.

Even surrounded by overwhelming evidence some County Commissioners and citizens are unsure that a new building is absolutely necessary, mostly because they oppose the means to that end: an increase in property taxes[7].

Nevertheless, nobody negates the fact the 11th Judicial Circuit has outgrown its welcome in the affectionately dubbed building Cielito Lindo[8]. The frustrating status of the courthouse begs the question whether the citizens of Miami-Dade can freely redress their legal issues when judges are without courtrooms, files are damaged, and ADA requirements have not been met in recent years.

The Miami-Dade County Courthouse houses a total of forty-one judges and only twenty- three courtrooms[9] with a total a caseload of 192,000 cases forcing delayed access to the judicial system. Judges are constantly forced to share courtrooms and are unable to offer a flexible hearing scheduling and evidence must be schlepped from courtroom to courtroom.

Judges have been forced to leave their chambers as mold is discovered growing behind walls causing an unprecedented amount of illness between colleagues[10]. Water intrusion has ruined court files and has made it necessary for employees to wear boots and masks when working on lower floors. Even more horrifying is the fact that when it rains it does not only rain on the outside, but also inside the building. Moreover, attorneys are forced to try cases were they are unable to see witnesses or the jury due to columns blocking their vision of certain areas in the courtroom.

The starkest example of how this courthouse has affected a person’s access to courts is the moving of the probate division to the Overtown Transit Village North[11] to avoid further carbon dioxide exposure. The judges, their staff, attorneys, and citizens alike were unable to breathe when attending hearings on the third floor. The move has forced Judges into partitioned rooms where their makeshift walls do not reach the roof or floor. Even more frightening is that this is only one example of how the four and a half floors’ shut down[12] has affected access to timely hearings. So the question becomes: is delayed justice, justice denied?

[1] Lidia Dinkova, Vote Could Replace County Courthouse, Miami Today (July 16, 2014), available at  http://www.miamitodaynews.com/2014/07/16/vote-replace-county-courthouse/.

[2] Building Blocks For Justice, http://buildingblocksforjustice.com/why-we-need-a-new-courthouse/ (last visited Oct. 2, 2014).

[3] United States Census Bureau, State & County QuickFacts (2014)

[4] Chief Judge Seeks New County Courthouse, Miami Today (February 5, 2014), available at http://www.miamitodaynews.com/2014/02/05/chief-judge-seeks-new-county-courthouse/.

[5] Supra note 2.

[6] Fla.Const. art. I, §21.

[7] Patricia Mazzei, Push Begins For New Miami- Dade County Courthouse, Miami Herald (Aug. 16, 2014, 4:53 pm) available at http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article1980095.html.

[8] Supra note 7.

[9] Supra note 2.

[10] John Pacenti, Lawyers Raise Money for New Miami Courthouse Campaign, Daily Business Review (Sept. 24, 2014) available at http://www.dailybusinessreview.com/id=1202671209429/Lawyers-Raise-Money-for-New-Miami-Courthouse-Campaign?slreturn=20140903091708.

[11] Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida, http://www.jud11.flcourts.org/scsingle.aspx?pid=251 (last visited Oct. 2, 2014).

[12] Supra note 2.

Bertila L. Fernandez is a 2016 Staff Editor of the Race and Social Justice Law Review.

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