State Politics

Judge orders future court projects to be scrutinized

TALLAHASSEE -- There may never be another “Taj Mahal’’ courthouse in Florida.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Canady on Monday ordered all future appellate court construction projects to be approved in advance by the state’s highest court and monitored by the court system’s administrative employees.

Canady’s order comes just days after he promised reform in a statement delivered to members of an angry Senate budget committee that summoned two judges from the 1st District Court of Appeal to explain a new courthouse that includes 27 flat screen TVs, bathrooms and kitchens for all 15 judges, granite counter- and desktops and miles of African mahogany.

“Every dollar should be spent wisely and with an unceasing awareness that it is hard earned taxpayer money,” Canady said in a statement. “The construction of a courthouse is a long-term investment in a building where important public business is done. But that does not justify extravagant expenditures.

“Courthouses should be dignified, durable and functional. They should not be grandiose, monumental and luxurious.”

Canady’s actions marked the first formal change prompted by the lavish new building, but it was not the chief justice’s first move to repair the damage to the court system’s public image. In November, Canady quietly forced Judge Paul M. Hawkes to resign as chief judge of the 1st DCA.

Hawkes remains on the court and was with fellow judge Brad Thomas in the Senate last week to answer questions about the new building. The two judges issued an apology of sorts, saying they didn’t mean to exceed “legislative intent’’ in building the new courthouse.

Canady also is considering plans to relocate about 50 state court system employees, using some of the extra space in the new courthouse.

Sen. Mike Fasano, chairman of the budget committee that has questioned the new courthouse, said he was pleased with Canady’s order and hopes it will prevent “an irresponsible rogue judge from spending tax dollars as we saw with Hawkes and Thomas.”

The judges, both former legislative staffers, spent five years lobbying for money to build the new courthouse and got authorization for a $33.5 million bond issue into a transportation bill on the last day of the 2007 session. Many lawmakers who voted for the bill say they were unaware it contained money to build a lavish courthouse in the midst of a budget crisis.

Fasano also has asked the Senate to adopt a new rule that would impose a 72-hour cooling off period on last-minute amendments that have a fiscal impact.