If the thought of serving jury duty is unpleasant, imagine having to drive to Miami every day or pay for a hotel room for a week or more to do your civic duty.
Florida Keys attorneys and some federal judges are concerned about that possibility in light of a judicial panel that is considering shuttering the historic federal courthouse in Key West.
The Sidney M. Aronovitz U.S. Courthouse at 301 Simonton St., named after a late judge and third-generation Key Wester, was 17th on a national list of 62 federal courthouses slotted for possible closure due to tough economic times.
No local judge is permanently assigned to the courthouse, where three Miami judges and a Fort Lauderdale magistrate take turns presiding: U.S. District Judges James Lawrence King, Jose E. Martinez, K. Michael Moore, and U.S. Magistrate Judge Lurana Snow.
Should it close -- there is no date set on when the decision will be made -- potential jurors, clerks, lawyers, defendants and litigants would be required to travel to Miami for court proceedings, which would be too great a burden, said Key West attorneys David Paul Horan and Jerry Ballarotto. It is the first such instance Horan could recall of any discussion concerning possible courthouse closure.
They are not alone. Chief U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno in Miami wrote to the Judicial Conference of the U.S. and its Space and Facilities Committee Chairman District Judge Michael Ponsor of Springfield, Mass., urging them to keep the courthouse open.
The Judicial Conference was created by Congress in 1922 to serve as the policymaking body and administrator of the federal courts, according to its website.
"From your list of courthouses under scrutiny, the trial hours for district judges in Key West are the ninth highest of the 63 facilities listed," Moreno wrote to Ponsor. "We had approximately 300 jurors reporting for the first day of jury service and another 200 days of continuing jury service at the Aronovitz courthouse in fiscal year 2010."
Ballarotto called it "outrageous" to ask residents to drive to Miami. He was perturbed that the government also would ask criminal defendants who have not been convicted to travel such a distance, as well as their families and witnesses.
The attorney noted the recent uptick in fisheries cases, particularly alleged lobster violations.
"If the federal government has the money for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) agents to put GPS trackers on our fishermen's boats and follow them in helicopters and staff an FBI office in Key West, then it should certainly have the funds to maintain our courthouse, where we can defend ourselves and demand a trial by a jury of our peers as guaranteed by the Constitution," Ballarotto said.
The timing of the possible closure seems odd to Ballarotto, Horan and fellow attorney and former Key West Chamber of Commerce President Cara Higgins, all of whom noted last year's multimillion-dollar construction of a new sally port and renovation of the U.S. Marshal's Office.
"Think of the money they recently invested in it," Higgins said. "That would be a complete waste of taxpayer money."
Horan has been researching the history of the courthouse since the issue arose.
"Key West wouldn't be the Key West we know it today, had it not been for salvors," Horan said, adding that the need for salvage law brought the federal court here in the 1800s, which in turn drew Bahamian salvors and wreckers who had to bring their salvaged goods to the nearest U.S. port of entry. "What happened? All those Bahamian salvors moved to Key West and that's why we have so many Bahamian families in Key West."
The two-story building was built in 1932 using Key Largo limestone from the Windley Key quarry and is the site of the first federal court in Florida, with a rich history in admiralty law, drug cases from the drug smuggling days of the 1970s and the Mariel boatlift.
Moreno notes in his letter that the last issue could be revisited.
"With its close proximity to communist Cuba, the Key West courthouse is the point of entry of potentially thousands of refugees in the future as it has happened repeatedly in the past," Moreno wrote. "The Aronovitz courthouse is a center stone in the district's security plan that was created in coordination with the United States Attorney's Office to manage our response when the Castro brothers die, causing a floodgate of refugees into Florida through Key West.
"At this point, no discussion of the Key West courthouse would be complete without mention of the geographic and historical significance of that location in the fabric of our country's legal development." The decision to close the courthouse should not be made on a fiscal basis alone, Ballarotto said.
"Keep in mind that the other two courthouses in the Southern District of Florida are in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, only a few miles from each other," Ballarotto said. "Why don't they close one of those courthouses? Frankly, if this is the extent of the commitment the federal government is willing to make to Key West, maybe we should reconsider our secession from the union."