It’s time to re-establish a permanent home for the state appeals court that serves the Tampa Bay region.
It makes sense to put it in Tampa, the same as it made sense 30 years ago when the court’s operations began moving piece by piece up Interstate 4 from Lakeland to Tampa.
But with pork chop politics driving the decision on where to locate appeals courts, as they have since these courts were established in the 1950s, sense has taken a back seat in the debate so far.
Created as relief for an overburdened Supreme Court, and a force for progress during the desegregation era that followed the seminal Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, Florida’s District Courts of Appeal review decisions from lower tribunals through multi-judge panels. They aim to correct harmful errors and ensure consistency in the application of the law.
State lawmakers from Polk County want Lakeland to remain the home of the 2nd District Court of Appeal. Lakeland might have been the right place when the state first was divided into three appellate districts — based in Tallahassee, Lakeland and Miami.
Even then, though, it was political wrangling at decision time that snatched the headquarters from Orlando.
Today, the appeals courts have expanded to five districts, serving a state whose population has shifted as it has grown by five-fold. With a population of 108,054, and situated in the northeastern corner of a 13-county district that’s home to some 5.5 million people, all Lakeland has to commend it as a legal center now is inertia.
The good news is that there appears to be agreement on the need for a single, permanent appeals court home. State lawmakers have even taken some first steps toward providing the money.
The old Lakeland courthouse, dating to the early days of the state’s appeals courts, had decayed to the point it was declared uninhabitable in 2016. Some of its work was moved to leased office space in Lakeland.
But by that time, court operations had been shifting for three decades to Tampa, under a state law allowing for the creation of appellate court annexes. No other appellate court district before or since has taken advantage of this measure.
Today, the court operates almost entirely out of leased space at the Stetson Tampa Law Center, near downtown — a satellite campus of the university’s Gulfport-based College of Law. Only the clerk’s staff remains in Lakeland. But it will take another act of the Legislature to formally relocate the headquarters.
Here are some of the arguments for a move to Tampa, all presented in a 2016 report by the National Center for State Courts:
• Nearly two-thirds of the court’s employees live in Hillsborough and Pinellas, with about a third living in Polk.
• The population of the 13 counties is centered in the Tampa Bay region, with 41 percent living here and 12 percent in Polk County.
• About half the parties who petition the court live in the Tampa Bay region compared to 13 percent from Polk.
• Because the offices in Lakeland can no longer host oral arguments, users need to travel to Lakeland to visit the clerk’s office and travel to Tampa to state their case.
Still, state Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Republican whose legislative district includes Lakeland, told Dan Sullivan of the Tampa Bay Times recently: "I haven’t seen a compelling reason why having a courthouse in Tampa meets the needs of the public any more than having a courthouse in Lakeland."
Stargel apparently needs to study the report.
What a new home for the 2nd District Court of Appeal should look like remains to be seen.
Certainly, it must be humbler than the 1st District headquarters in Tallahassee, which prompted resignations and widespread outrage after the Times reported the project had ballooned during the 2007 legislative session from a modest $20,000 floor addition to a grandiose $50 million "Taj Mahal."
And any plan should look ahead 20 years, toward changes that are revolutionizing all workplaces — online meetings, working remotely, digital records storage that requires servers and bandwidth rather than shelves and filing cabinets.
The legal profession, as a 2014 American Bar Association article noted, "is derived from centuries of practice (and) notoriously slow to change and adapt. We ought to make sure that our transformation is not only ethical but that it utilizes technology to its highest potential."
Now is the time to act on advice like this as the state’s judicial and legislative leaders decide what’s next for the 2nd District Court of Appeal.
And Tampa, already the court’s real home, is the place to do it.