Judges Seek Ruling on Courthouse Health

Article excerpt

Byline: Jim Schoettler, Times-Union staff writer

Jacksonville's federal judges are demanding their landlord -- the U.S. government -- either declare the local federal courthouse free of health risks or act on an health study that said the building's mold and mildew are a danger to employees and the course of justice.

Trials set to last for more than a week, such as the murder case against ex-Jacksonville police officer Karl Waldon, already face moving to other sites because of judges' concerns over air quality in courtrooms. And employee complaints about health concerns are growing louder, with harsh words for the landlord, the U.S. General Services Administration, coming from clerks and one judge during an October meeting in Jacksonville.

During the meeting, District Judge Harvey E. Schlesinger complained that the GSA has "abandoned the workers" by not taking the health risks seriously or making proper repairs of leaking water. A transcript of the meeting, whose attendees included GSA officials, was obtained by the Times-Union Friday.

"We're the people that run and keep this country happy, and I don't know why we have to be made to suffer," Schlesinger said, citing no health problems of his own. "Those people who have these diseases or allergies, we know what it's caused by. There's a 75-foot patch they just put over my chambers, and it's still leaking in there."

GSA officials, who dispute some of the study's findings, told the group they were fixing what they could and conducting their own review.

In the latest development, the judges, joined by colleagues from the 35-county Middle District of Florida, passed a resolution Friday that said the GSA should either pronounce the courthouse clean or admit there is a health risk and come up with a plan to make it habitable.

About 185 people, including 13 judges, work in the 68-year-old building at 311 W. Monroe St. A new courthouse, being built across the street, is expected to be finished by October. Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, the district's chief judge, said GSA officials needed to make an immediate response to the judges' resolution.

"Because of the poor air quality in the Jacksonville courthouse, the judges there are experiencing increasing difficulty in fulfilling the charges to administer justice," Kovachevich wrote. "The judges' concerns are based, in part, on the court employees' apparent health problems and the fact that court proceedings and jury selections have been, and continue to be, adversely impacted. …