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This past summer, Dade County Court Judge Victoria Sigler won the Singing Judges Contest at the South Miami-Kendall Bar Association's annual banquet at the Biltmore Hotel. Every year the association invites Dade's judges to sing for their dinners; besides dining free, the winner parades around the banquet room to the Miss America theme, wearing a red cape and a gaudy crown. This year's honor was an impressive coup for rookie Sigler, elected to the bench in November 1994. But she had good material. Since January Sigler has been the presiding -- in fact the only -- judge at the Northwest District courthouse in Hialeah, and like all truly great creative artists, she sang about what she knew. Her winning number, set to the tune of "When You're Smiling," was entitled, "Judging in Hialeah."
"When you're judging in Hialeah/When it rains, inside it pours," the ditty begins. "On days it's raining, it rains in the courthouse/It runs off my desk onto the floor/It drops in the courtroom in puddles and drops/The ceiling falls in, making loud noisy plops."
Sigler was not taking poetic license. The Hialeah courthouse, located in the Citizens Federal Bank building on SE Fourth Avenue, has not been in the best condition for several years now.
"When it rains," says Sigler, "it leaks in different parts of my courtroom. There are six major leaks in the building. One is in my office. I came in one morning to find my desk afloat and twenty files destroyed. That was the day I decided I was mildly annoyed."
For the past several years, workers in the courthouse have suffered various leakage-related difficulties and disasters -- not to mention a shortage of space for a growing volume of visitors. Hialeah's per-judge caseload is probably the highest of any of the county's ten branch courts: While the branch is fourth in revenues collected, according to statistics compiled by the District Courts Division, it is the only one of those top four courts with just one judge. (Starting this week, another judge will begin visiting Hialeah two days a week, rather than sporadically, which had previously been the case.)
Earlier this year, Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez made an offer to county officials: The city would construct a new courthouse on land it owned across the street from city hall, and then lease the building to financially strapped Dade County. When the county was slow in responding to the offer, the mayor called Sigler, who brought the matter to the attention of Chief Judge Joseph Farina. "Now I'm waiting for them to get back to me and say, 'Yeah, this is something we can do,'" Martinez says.
Courts spokesman Morton Lucoff says several months of negotiations have produced a tentative arrangement for the city to donate the land and construct a five-million-dollar, two-story courthouse that Dade will pay for over several years. (Any deal, of course, would first have to be approved by the Metro commissioners and the Hialeah City Council.) Lucoff says construction of a new central county court, as well as new courthouses in Coral Gables and far West Dade, would have been financed by a $527 million 1994 bond issue. But because voters rejected the bond issue, the county can't afford new construction.
For the time being, at least, conducting business at the Hialeah courthouse has its drawbacks. Visitors often must stand in a line that extends all the way out to the Citizens Federal parking lot. There's no X-ray machine, so all belongings are searched by a guard. Though the courthouse is equipped with a walk-through metal detector, the guards often conduct a second once-over with a hand-held detector, an additional precaution resulting from a recent upsurge in knife confiscations as well as a rainwater leak directly above the walk-through unit. "One time they had to replace it after it rained," says Ofcr. Albert Fernandez, the Metro-Dade policeman who oversees courthouse security.
Fernandez has arranged his small office in deference to the leaks, the worst of which is behind a wall vent. "Two months ago, the wall caved in and this vent fell," Fernandez recounts. "I don't even put pictures up. The first thing when I walked in here two years ago, the officer I was replacing said to me, 'When I leave, don't put any furniture near the vent.'" Rain leaks also caused a short in the clerk's office fax machine a few months ago. That happened just after courthouse workers had rebounded from an attack of fleas.
Down the hall in Courtroom One, Sigler, a former public defender, finds "some amusement" in watching water drip onto the heads of prosecutors. The brown carpet, which Fernandez says is only a year old, is a veritable Rorschach test of water stains. Occasionally the smell of mildew wafts up among the six packed rows of seats and the folding chairs that line the walls to handle the overflow. The air conditioning rumbles so loudly, says Judge Sigler, that it has to be shut off "when we decide we want to hear each other." Sometimes it stops of its own accord, as it did this past week. (The judge says she has been told it won't be repaired for three weeks.)
As landlord, Citizens Federal is responsible for maintenance. (Though other courthouse branches are located in buildings not owned by the county, Hialeah and Coral Gables are the only privately owned sites.) Citizens Federal spokesman John Schulte says he hasn't been told about current problems with the air conditioning in the building, but adds that the bank has responded diligently to the other maintenance complaints. "This has been the rainiest season in Miami's history," Schulte points out. "Workers have been out and done some repairs, and they have to do more."
Court employees say conditions have improved since a few months ago, when the county withheld rent payments (about $8000 per month) and several subsequent roof repairs were made. But maintaining the 40-year-old edifice is an ongoing challenge. "They finally got that leak over the judge's desk fixed after three attempts," says Joshua Estevez, a court security officer. "They send exterminators out a lot, too, so we don't have too much of a problem with bugs any more." Just to be safe, a white plastic roach trap guards a corner of the narrow hallway outside the judge's chambers.
At least, observes Sigler, "They've almost got the rodent problem under control. I say they were mice. Judge [Linda Singer] Stein says they're rats. But she's a city girl.