de Groot: Influencial Lawyers, Judges Thwarted New Courthouse

Guest Columnist

(This is former newspaper editor and columnist John de Groot’s memories of the fight over a new courthouse a generation ago.)

The skeletons hiding in most closets are usually the children of self interest and stupidity.

This is certainly true in the case of Broward’s aged courthouse currently closed from flooding caused by a break in an antique water line.

Ever the media’s favorite instant quote whore, Public Defender Howard (Help Me Howard) Finkelstein made the front page of the Tuesday’s Miami Herald bemoaning how:

“An old pipe bursting in an old building has brought our judicial system to its knees. This courthouse is one of the biggest disgraces in the state and the public continues to suffer.

A phone system flooded by the broken pipe could cause the courthouse to remain closed for weeks, leading Finkelstein to properly conclude how, “Justice delayed is justice denied, and we clearly have a delay in justice here.

Naturally, a thoughtful citizen might wonder how and why Florida’s second largest country is home to such a shamefully sick and decrepit hall justice.

The short and most popular answer blames Broward voters for rejecting a $450 million bond issue to build a brand new courthouse to house our judicial system.

Which would be true.

More or less.

But not entirely.

Truth is, those most responsible for the soggy state of Broward’s ailing courthouse are either dead, long retired, or almost as infirm as the courthouse itself.

How so?

Basically, because the most vocal and powerful judges and lawyers in Broward County won a hard fought battle to keep the courthouse as it was in the late 1970’s  thus necessitating a costly series of patchwork repairs and additions to the aged building over the next 25 years.

I know because I was there.

And I remember how:

  •                      A federal court ordered the Broward County Commission to build a new main jail to replace the rusting nest of ancient cells buried deep in the bowels of the courthouse on SE 6th Street.


  •                            A committee was formed to study the best location for the new main jail.


  •                           In time, the committee decided the county’s new, state-of-the-art jail should be built in the unpopulated boonies far to the west of Broward.


  •                           Further, for security reasons, the committee agreed that Broward’s judges, state attorney, public defender and other components of the criminal justice system should be relocated far to the west in a new facility beside the new jail.


  •                           In other words, the idea was to continue housing the civil end of Broward’s legal system in the old courthouse and move the county’s entire criminal justice system to a single campus at the western edge of the Everglades.    


As bold proposals go, the jail committee would have done just as well with a plan to pour itching powder in County Commissioner’s panties or outlaw real estate lobbyists. 

Which is how and why the jail committee’s plan died a sudden and silent political death.


Basically, because the county’s entire criminal justice system judges, lawyers and et all refused to work in some bug-infested criminal justice complex lost in the swamps of far western Broward just because the goddamn idea made sense and saved millions of tax dollars.

Which is how and why a massive bunker-style jail squats on the southern banks of the New River in the middle of downtown Fort Lauderdale .

And also why County Commissioners have poured untold millions upon millions of our tax dollars into patching,repairing and expanding Broward’s basically sick and rotting courthouse.

Because yesterday’s criminal lawyers, judges and public officials got what they wanted as opposed to what Broward needed.
“So now you know the rest of the story, as the 90-year-old Paul Harvey still intones over the airwaves today.


2 Responses to “de Groot: Influencial Lawyers, Judges Thwarted New Courthouse”

  1. Werner says:

    Mr. de Groot is right. It was a collection of downtown Fort Lauderdale lawyers and old time judges in the late 1970s who pressured the county commission into dropping plans to move the criminal courts to west Broward. That idea was patterned after Dade County, which moved their criminal courts out of downtown to the west to the area near Jackson Memorial. The WASP lawyer establishment in Broward, many who had real estate in the downtown, didn’t want to travel west. It was an area they viewed as full of undesirable ethnics (Jews and Italians), far removed from the power center in downtown. Oncd the decision was made to keep the criminal courts downtown, a new jail had to be built because the current jail in the courthouse was overcrowded and under a federal court order to reduce its population. A number of spectacular escapes of prisoners being transported to the courthouse from other county jails made it necessary to build that monstrosity on the river with a bridge connecting it to the criminal courts for security reasons. This total waste of river front property could have been avoided if the county commission had the guts to stand up to the downtown lawyers and judges. Now we are stuck with their mistakes and we are stuck with the current commissioners refusal to do anything.

  2. H. T. Kaltinborne says:

    What makes anyone think the powers-to-be will ever let court facilities out of downtown regardless of how much sense it makes to put them on cheaper land somewhere else?