By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
The Greek Revival facade of the Florida Supreme Court on Duval Street in downtown Tallahassee may conceal a less elegant secret: It’s possible the building is what toxicologists call “sick.”
People who work in these unhealthy spaces are prone to “sick building syndrome” from lengthy exposure to irritants and toxins like dust mites and mold spores.
Without close inspection, it’s impossible to conclude the court is a sick building. Staffers have reached out to Florida Bulldog to express their concerns because, they say, court managers would reject their complaints and retaliate.
In a sick building environment, asthmatic workers can develop breathing problems, according to medical experts. Those who suffer from allergies can experience sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, coughing, itchy eyes or dizziness.
Respiratory illnesses linked to airborne toxins can even be fatal. The death in 2006 of U.S. Magistrate Ted Klein, 66, from pulmonary fibrosis was blamed on mold spores in the old Miami federal courthouse where he worked.
But it’s unlikely anyone will make a formal determination of whether the Florida Supreme Court is a sick building. No regulatory body, state or federal, has the responsibility to investigate sick building complaints and require action to protect court personnel.
NO WORKPLACE GUARDIAN
“OSHA does not have coverage over public sector employees,” said Erika Ruthman, a spokesperson for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“There are currently no services available from the State of Florida for indoor air quality in the workplace,” says the Florida Department of Health’s web site.
The now-defunct state labor department’s Division of Safety used to enforce workplace air quality standards but that ended in 2000 when the Legislature cut the division’s funding, according to the DOH website. It says no other agency assumed any of the services that disappeared when the state closed the safety division.
“We have no jurisdiction inside buildings,” said Joya McCarty of the Leon County (Tallahassee) Health Department, a division of the state health department.
The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Florida represents janitors and custodians who work for the government, presumably including the Supreme Court, union spokesman Nat Bender said.
“If there were health and safety concerns the union would want to investigate to advocate for the safety of the public and members,” he said. “I am not aware that we have had any complaints brought to us.”
COURT SHEDS 42,000 BOOKS
The Duval Street building holds 223 employees; two of the court’s seven members, Chief Justice Carlos Muniz and Justice Ricky Polston, are based there, according to court spokesman Paul Flemming.
The source of air quality concerns is the law library, which at one time took up half the space in the 1948 courthouse.
Three years ago the court eliminated 42,000 volumes, about a third of the only public law library in Leon County. It’s also a resource for courts across the state whose print collections were reduced in favor of online research.
Books are still necessary because some historically important volumes haven’t been digitized. Computers are unlikely to ever replace rare book rooms.
Government employees told Florida Bulldog the 42,000 books had to go because mold and mildew destroyed them after many years of groundwater seepage that managers failed to stop. Behind the scenes, court employeessay they quietly endure respiratory problems.
Flemming said he’s unaware of any air quality issues. “I have no knowledge of any of the assertions you make,” he wrote in response to emailed questions. “There is no information I am aware of to support those statements.”
He describes the 2020 book purge as part of a regular “weeding” process. “Weeding is a standard, constant process of reviewing material and replacing a library’s out-of-date and obsolete material,” Flemming wrote. “I would not be surprised if some of the weeding involved deteriorated printed material, but I do not know the extent that represented.”
‘HALLOWEEN HORROR HOUSE’
The outdated and damaged books were sent to nearby Florida State University, where they were recycled into paper, Flemming said. Myriam Bilodeau, the university’s library operations and acquisitions supervisor, could not be reached for comment.
Late last year many thousands of books were long gone but the scent of mold lingered in a library storage area the public never enters, a court employee said.
“The lower levels look kinda like a Halloween horror house,” the staffer told Florida Bulldog. “I wandered in there by mistake one day and I’m never going back.
“The smell of mold is strong and I’m allergic to it. I left there sneezing my nose off,” the staffer said on condition of anonymity for fear of being fired.
“Friends I have lunch with regularly have told me that their allergies and asthma got worse from working in that building, especially on the lower floors,” a second source said recently.
“My friend told me that at one point they had an infestation of dust mites that got into the carpets, the file cabinets, the upholstery and the desks,” this source said. “They had to seal off offices in the lower basement and bring in experts to eliminate the infestation, though my friend said it didn’t really work.”
The source noted that the American Lung Association has identified dust mites as a major trigger for asthma and added, “the justices don’t care about that because they themselves are safe.”
CANADY ORDERS A STUDY
At least five of the seven justices do not work full time at 500 S. Duval St. They stay in their home districts except to hear appellate arguments and participate in other group functions, staffers said.
As examples, Justice Charles Canady’s Florida Bar profile says his mailing address is 811 E. Main Street in Lakeland. And Justice Renatha Francis has a direct phone line to her office at the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach.
Some court employees work in the downtown City Centre building. The Office of the State Courts Administrator (OSCA), the Federal Public Defender and the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper also are tenants.
Flemming said employees are shifted as needed between the court and City Centre, commonly referred to as “the OSCA annex.” Rent is $27,866.67 per month, he said.
In early 2020 Canady, then chief justice, commissioned a study of the law library from the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Supported by court membership dues, the center describes itself as “an independent, non-profit organization focused on improving the administration of justice.” Florida is paying $429,115 in dues this year, Flemming said.
LIBRARY MANAGEMENT DINGED
In December 2020 NCSC researchers set out to observe and make recommendations about the library’s collection and space planning. The center was supposed to advise the court about creating an “educational learning center.”
Based on the NCSC’s preliminary report dated January 2021, the advising and recommending didn’t progress very far.
The previous month, researchers interviewed library workers, staff lawyers and court officials remotely. They didn’t visit the Tallahassee courthouse because the pandemic suppressed travel.
Their report refers to the 42,000 “weeded” volumes in the context of freeing up space for a learning center. ”This collection appears to continue to meet the legal research needs of the court,” it says.
Still, four library staff members complained to the researchers about management lapses that the report summarizes.
“Unfortunately, it appears they have suffered from a lack of direction and leadership for quite some time,” the report states. “All lamented how this has diminished both their ability to advocate for the collection and services they offer, as well as establishing the library’s role in ‘access to justice’ projects where they could have provided insight and expertise.”
FINAL ‘PRELIMINARY’ PHASE
But the NCSC offered few specific suggestions. The report promises further guidance after a second research phase, to include a site visit.
Phase two hasn’t happened yet and apparently never will. “The pandemic precluded a site visit,” Flemming said in September. Asked for an update last week, he downplayed the learning center idea.
“The study was undertaken to assess the use of the library and provide information for the Supreme Court to use in its decision making. The Supreme Court has never decided to pursue nor sought funding for a Judicial Learning Center. It has never been planned,” Flemming wrote.
Florida Bulldog asked Gail Warren, the NCSC’s consultant for the library study, why it was abandoned mid-way through.
Warren, who is the Virginia State Law Librarian, responded in an email: “I would not presume to know the reasons why I have not been asked to continue this work or visit the Florida Supreme Court in person.”
Edward Crespo / March 7, 2023 8:09 am
The Florida Supremes are nothing but a bunch of “flunkies” and “yes men” (and women), who live to please Ron DeSantis! I was once a staunch Republican…and PROUD of it! Now I’m ASHAMED of it! If ALL the Florida Supremes were to succumb to the toxic conditions in their courthouse, it would NOT be any great loss! These Justices do NOT give a damn about the blatant mistreatment of certain disadvantaged Florida citizens by the lower courts. I know, because I’m one of them! I just LOVE being treated like a second-class citizen by the prejudiced, corrupt judges in the 17th Judicial Circuit Court and the 4th District Court of Appeal! I once tried to file a Petition in the Florida Supreme Court on the basis that my constitutional rights of due process of law and access to the courts had been violated, which they WERE! My Petition was promptly rejected because in Florida, a pro se litigant’s rights mean NOTHING!
Deborah Terhune / March 7, 2023 8:12 pm
Is this the building that was controversial for being built extravagantly?