Thursday, February 21, 2013

Miami Has a World-Class Baseball Stadium...So Why Does It Have a Third World Courthouse? [UPDATED x1]

A rare sight outside the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building: a live chicken.
(Photo via the Justice Building Blog)

"'Course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough." -Noah Cross in the 1974 film, "Chinatown"


No one will dispute the fact the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building is old. But respectable? As far as I know, no one uses the word "respectable" to describe the ugly building at 1351 NW 12th Street. Certainly not the "truth-seekers" who labor there each day.

Last year, while on jury duty, filmmaker Billy Corben had this to say about the place: "The Richard E. Gerstein Justice Bldg. in Miami-Dade County, Fla. was built 40 years ago for 8-10 judges. It now has over 45 judges and 1 working elevator." Corben was off by ten years...but you get the point.

A few weeks ago an 18 year-old woman was found in criminal contempt for extending her middle finger in the general direction of a judge during a bond hearing in one of the building's courtrooms.

Corben told me today, "If anyone has contempt for that court, it's the county or state or whoever is responsible for maintaining the building. There are a lot of people doing extremely important work in there and they should not have to work under those conditions. I'd rather serve jury duty on the Carnival Triumph."

And here's what Miami Beach criminal defense attorney Michael Grieco has to say about the REGJB: "The first rule I was taught in that building is to never touch the escalator handrails or my face," adding, "The Dade County criminal justice system outgrew the building's usefulness in the mid-90s."

Family and friends of a defendant in a criminal case wait in a sixth floor
corridor in Nov. 2011. (Photo by Al Diaz/Miami Herald)

 WPLG reporter Michael Putney told me the Justice Building is the perfect place to observe "the full spectrum of humanity...from the best to the worst."

Said Putney, "Back when my daughter was a teenager, she thought the world was a wonderful and sparkly place. One day I threatened to take her down to the courthouse on a Monday morning so she could see the petty criminals and strung-out junkies pulled in by cops over the weekend."

But while the place may be lacking in amenities, it's got tons of character and atmosphere...character and atmosphere roughly akin to that of a $49 a night Biscayne Blvd. motel room.

The wheels of justice turn slowly inside the building. Outside, enough has happened to inspire a dozen novels and screenplays. More than one chicken has given up its life on NW 12th Street in a desperate attempt to "sway the outcome" of a trial.

But, the Justice Building hasn't always been an object of scorn or the butt of jokes.

It was completed in 1962 at a cost of $8 million....about the price of a Marlins Stadium luxury suite in 2013 dollars.

Back then, as the place was getting ready to open,  Miami News editor Bill Baggs used words like "high class" and "elegant" to describe the joint:
This is obviously as high class an address as a public official could have. The walls inside the White House are not nearly as elegant, not to mention the tile work. It is a sumptuous vista, down there among the shipyards, and we should all swell with pride.
Miami News, Sept. 29, 1962.
Click here to enlarge.)
But that was then...

More than a half-century later, Michael Grieco knows exactly what's needed to fix up the place: "The Justice Building needs two things: a parking garage and a wrecking ball."

UPDATED On Feb. 22at 12:05pm:


  1. Great post. I'm going to link to it over the weekend.


  2. Sad, but oh so true!

    Having to serve jury duty there is very uncomfortable, and conducting business in there is morose.

    It is quite the sausage factory, and few enjoy seeing how that is made.

  3. I served jury duty there a few years ago. They put you into this very large room where a Judge comes in with instructions. First, he asked those who could not speak English to raise their hands. At last 75 people raised their hands. They were dismissed. I interrupted the Judge and asked him how those people got their citizenship without being able to speak English. Everyone glared at me and said nothing.


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