The towering civil courthouse in downtown Miami buzzes daily with human drama. People lose custody of their children, change names, get rich, and get hosed, married, and divorced. Inside the hive of litigation, a tiny sanctuary affords the powerful and desperate alike a quiet place to build their case. Amid the wooden nooks and stacks of numbered spines, locals can enjoy a cheap date with lady justice.
But all of that might change thanks to ham-fisted county budget cuts that took effect October 1.
"In a few months it will be easier to do research in jail," Troy Nader Moslemi says as he presses a book of New York case law onto the glass of a flashing photocopier. Moslemi's khaki dress shirt hangs like a flag from his narrow frame. Pale and thin, he seems to blend organically with the tan vinyl books along the wall — like tiger stripes in tall grass.
Moslemi, an attorney, says the library has helped him save at least four immigrants from deportation. Today he's trying to come up with a defense to prevent the Department of Homeland Security from deporting a Jamaican lesbian. State officials are trying to revoke asylum granted to her in 1996 by arguing she lied to them. They found out she has a son and therefore must have lied about her sexuality. Moslemi says he has already pulled two cases off the library shelves that prove their argument is bunk. He does all of his research in the Miami-Dade County Law Library. And he always has. He spent 10 years teaching paralegal research at Miami Dade College and urged all of his students to avoid pricey computer services. His love for books — the law printed and bound — proved useful when he became an immigration attorney operating on a shoestring budget. Moslemi says he travels on bargain-fare airlines to visit clients in jail and is lucky to get a thousand bucks for working a case.
"Half my clients are Chinese guys who get busted here with nothing," he says, adjusting his glasses. "I could look up my materials on some online database, for three dollars a minute, but how could any of them afford it?"
Not far from him, Carlos Aguilar sits with meaty arms folded on a long wooden table. He wears a black Hawaiian shirt. Slick sunglasses sit at his side.
"[The library] is such a value," he grumbles, making his case in a thick Brooklyn accent. The lawyer spent the past two years at a Coral Gables firm, Pollack & Rosen. "But I always wanted my own shop," he says. So a couple of weeks ago, he set out as a solo practitioner; he has relied on the library ever since. For small firms and solo practitioners, which Aguilar calls "the little guy," there's really no other option.
Right now he's working on helping a poor family straighten out its financial affairs. Their father died and left no will. "If I had to go out and bill them for a lot of research," says Aguilar, "it'd kill them."
The 70-year-old downtown law library offers the last vestige of public legal information in a once great system. Eight years ago there were five law libraries in the county operating on a nearly two-million-dollar budget. The money came mostly from fees that civil litigants paid to the county every time they filed a lawsuit.
The libraries contained up-to-date case law from every state in the Union, periodicals, and cheap access to online databases like Lexis and Westlaw. A trilingual staff offered help and guidance to anyone who walked through the door.
By 2001 the Miami Beach, North Dade, and South Dade branches had closed. Rents had soared and so had the prices of many legal publications. A couple of years later, a pair of librarians at the criminal courthouse were let go. Criminal materials were pared down and shipped to the last remaining public law library downtown.
In 2005 the state legislature stopped charging special filing fees for the library. The library's $1.7 million budget was cut in half. Seven of the 14 library staffers were laid off. Since then they've scraped by, surviving on a portion of criminal and traffic fees and money provided by Miami-Dade County.
On September 17, the county commission's Health and Public Safety Committee considered pulling even more funding for the law library. The president of the library's board of trustees, Judge Gill Freeman, made a final plea for the public money, arguing that about a third of the library's patronage comes from citizens who have nowhere else to turn. Freeman stressed that Miami Dade College students study legal research at the facility. And public classes are offered on the same subject. "We are begging you, in effect, to continue funding us so we don't have to close our doors after 70 years," she said as the committee members shook their heads.
"I know my constituents down in District 9 aren't familiar with it," replied Commissioner Dennis Moss. "They don't know it exists." Moss suggested that paying for the law library should be left to the lawyers. "Attorneys around town contribute to a lot of things in this town, including campaigns and everything else," he said. "It seems to me ... that there would be an ability to raise, let's say, another $250,000."
In the end, the committee refused to recommend funding for the law library.
The library has tried to raise money. Beginning August 1, staff began soliciting donations. The 11th Judicial Circuit Historical Society, a group of judges and lawyers led by Circuit Court Judge Scott Silverman, auctioned antique mug shots of Al Capone. A handful of law firms bought them. Then, on September 11, they dolled up the walls of the library with cloth, played music, and offered dinner at $100 a head. But the monthlong drive raised only $85,000.
An additional $50,000 has been pledged, according to Lyle Shapiro, an attorney spearheading the fundraising.
"[That money is] not something we can look to every year and it's not enough," says Freeman, who guesses the first thing to go will be members of the staff. "We'll survive this year," she adds. "But next year...."
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In the meantime, Miami's poor keep filing in with questions in Kreyol, Spanish, and all manner of broken English. The library staff has done things like pull photocopies from a giant binder and explain how a packet of forms will get a baby out of the Dominican Republic, or help couples nix failed marriages quickly and cheaply. Some of the visitors are simply crazy — hoping to sue creation for everything under the sun. Eccentrics have used the library as a foothold and a safety net.
Tom Luongo, a boyish-looking New Englander, came to the library six months ago, after being laid off as a Volkswagen importer. He shows up every day, dressed in business attire, and furiously researches probate law. He's working to establish a business. "All the sources are right there in the library — tax code, legal documents, estate planning information," he says.
During his time here, he has befriended Johanna Propiglia, the library director, who is the last stop for every lost soul who walks through the courthouse doors. In a way, she is the county's den mother. On a recent day, Propiglia sits among a pile of grant applications and petitions. Her eyes betray a sullen desperation. "For us it's just [a fight] to stay alive," she says sadly. "And it just isn't looking good."
Even if the library closes, there might he hope. The University of Miami is considering moving its expanding law school downtown. And according to UM spokesperson Barbara Gutierrez, it's "open to anyone from the public who wants to do legal research."