New courthouse won't open Tuesday

Judges exploring options for where to hold court next week

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Another test of the new Duval County Courthouse fire control system has failed, and officials say the new $350 million building will not open Tuesday as scheduled.

Jacksonville Fire-Rescue Chief Marty Senterfitt said testing on the fire detection system was continuing Friday, but officials said later in the afternoon the brand new, seven-story building would not be approved for occupancy by Tuesday.

Senteriff told Channel 4's Jim Piggott the building might not even be open for business late next week.

"Before we open the building, it will be certified functional and it will be certified safe," he said. "Time is our emergency right now. There is a lot of stuff that has to happen before Tuesday, and I think to be fair we have to realize that Tuesday may not be a realistic deadline for us right now."

Channel 4 was told the computerized fire detection system should trigger on an exhaust system to draw out smoke, close doors and turn on sprinklers in areas where a fire is located.

Court operations in the old courthouse on Bay Street ended one week ago so everything could be moved into the new courthouse. Trials and other court business were suspended for 10 days, and judges said they were exploring the options of moving back into the old courthouse, using courthouse space in Clay or Nassau counties, or even the federal courthouse in Jacksonville.

While no trials have been scheduled for next week, the courts had a full schedule of hearings and motions. Several hundred were on the calendar, all of which are being shifted or rescheduled. Traffic court and first appearance hearings will be held.

Attorneys are wondering what they will do. Attorney Pat McGuinness said his firm had three sentencing hearings set for Tuesday.

"It's quite a problem for our clients and their families, not knowing if we can go forward at that time, whether we can bring people into town," McGuinness said. "I realize they are doing the best they can, but as I understand it, things are still up in the air."

The city is suggesting the judges move back to the old site or use space inside City Hall, the library, the convention center, the Ed Ball building, and try to get permission to use the federal courthouse. Staff realizes that's a long shot, but they are also looking at using courtrooms in Clay or Nassau counties.

"We believe that the best option is to utilize the Duval County Courthouse located at 330 E. Bay Street," Chris Hand, Mayor Alvin Brown's chief of staff, wrote to Chief Judge Donald Moran. "Additionally, according to your website the courthouse branch adjacent to the Traffic Violations Bureau (3470 Beach Boulevard) remains open and operating normally at this time, with ... courtrooms, hearing rooms, and other spaces that could be utilized for judicial business."

DOCUMENT: City's letter to chief judge about courthouse options

"I am not sure what we would do," Chief Judge Donald Moran said Thursday. "I would have to notify the Supreme Court again. It would cause some serious -- you know, it depends on how long. If you told me two days or three days, we would try to work with it. If you tell me two months, we got a serious problem."

"The state attorney's office is still open for business and our attorneys are ready to go to court, wherever that may be," a spokeswoman said in a statement. "This is an unfortunate hardship, but we will adjust and continue to pursue justice in the Fourth Judicial Circuit."

Clerk of Courts Jim Fuller said he can't see his office moving back to the old courthouse.

The company building the courthouse, Turner Construction, would be responsible for all costs of repairs or delays. Officials said the supervisor with Turner who supervised the installation of the fire system is out of the country, and that is part of the problem.

Officials haven't been specific about what is failing, but the Jacksonville Fire-Rescue says the building will not be cleared for occupancy until it passes all safety tests.

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