FL – U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley in was about to impose a federal prison sentence on a woman convicted of drug trafficking when he got an urgent message on the bench: Her family had flown in from the Bahamas to speak on her behalf, but there was a problem. They were waiting at the federal courthouse in West Palm Beach. No one told them that the courthouse at 701 Clematis St. had been closed and the sentencing had been moved to Fort Lauderdale. Federal court matters that were handled in West Palm Beach have been moved to Fort Pierce, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Hurley delayed the sentencing for two hours while the family drove to the alternate courthouse. The sentencing confusion is just one of the problems federal judges, other court personnel and lawyers have faced in the five months since the West Palm Beach building has been closed because of hurricane-related mold contamination that poses severe health risks.
After Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, mold surfaced in the bankruptcy section of the courthouse. Employees complained of headaches and sinus problems; the first symptoms of fungal exposure. Zloch ordered the building closed after tests showed mold contamination. At the time, federal officials said the cleanup would take two months. Last week, officials of the Palm Beach County chapter of the Federal Bar Association asked U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, to intervene.
Shaw, attending the organization’s meeting to explain his proposal to divide the Southern District into two parts, promised to look into the matter and expedite the courthouse’s opening. U.S. District Judge Don Middlebrooks said his staff is trying to take the stress in stride. The difficulty, from his perspective, is that there appears to be no clear time frame for cleanup to begin. “The only thing I’ve heard is that it could take six months to a year,” said Middlebrooks, who has been commuting to Miami for trials. Court administrator Maddox has been working with officials from the federal General Services Administration to bring some resolution to the problem, Middlebrooks said. The GSA is responsible for the federal government’s buildings and leases.
In February, federal officials relocated the court administration based in West Palm Beach to the Forum buildings at 1655 Palm Beach Lakes Blvd. The federal court is using two floors, totaling 20,503 square feet. Federal officials also have used the Palm Beach County Courthouse, which houses county and state court operations. But limited space there hindered efforts to keep as much judicial work as possible in West Palm Beach. Logistically, creating a mobile federal judiciary is taxing the system, according to judges, prosecutors and public defenders. “The staff is spending a tremendous amount of time on the road,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Andy Lourie, the chief assistant for the West Palm Beach office, which has 25 lawyers. “People are working harder and having to become more efficient.”
Of particular concern to federal officials who use the 32-year-old courthouse is that it has sat empty since Nov. 19 with no work done to mitigate the mold due to bureaucratic red tape. Federal court matters normally handled in West Palm Beach are being decided in Fort Pierce, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. That means judges, prosecutors and public defenders are spending hours on the road trying to get to trials and court hearings throughout Florida’s Southern District. U.S. marshals, who act as bailiffs to protect judges and transport prisoners, also are affected. That costs money as well as time. Judges and lawyers are staying in hotels while trials are held far from their homes. The legal commuters are spending more on gasoline at a time when prices are soaring.
Federal court officials, meanwhile, have rented more than 20,000 square feet at the Forum buildings on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard to serve as temporary administrative offices. They have not disclosed the cost of the 18-month lease. Chief U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch and Court Administrator Clarence Maddox did not return calls requesting information on the strain and cost to the court system and on when the West Palm Beach courthouse might reopen. Hurley just ended a two-week stint living out of a hotel in Fort Lauderdale at a cost of $500 a week, he said. “The kinds of problems we’re encountering, they’re really staggering,” he said.