The Changing Face Of The Courthouse, Inside And Out.
The first circuit court judge appointed in Broward County was staunchly opposed by the Ku Klux Klan, but in 1927, a year before the opening of the county’s first dedicated courthouse, the KKK still had tremendous political and social influence in Florida. Circuit Judge Vincent Giblin was a Roman Catholic, and that was a no-no for the klan. A little more than two years later, Judge Giblin would lose a reelection campaign. Just four months after that, Mr. Giblin began a famous representation of the notorious mobster, Al Capone, who had a home in neighboring Dade County. Mr. Giblin’s history is detailed in an essay, written by William G. Crawford, and it can be found on the Broward County Bar website.
The history of the Broward County Courthouse certainly has been colorful and controversial. As the county has grown, as its population has changed, the courthouse has been a participant and a witness to the political and social evolution that has been a part of the Broward County story since its founding in 1915. One of the more memorable events happened in 2000, when the court and its jurists were thrust into the national spotlight in the disputed presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The case eventually went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The current court tower, in its present form, opened in 1961, following completion of the west wing. 51 years later, construction work on the new courthouse tower would begin.
Two years after the existing court building opened and consolidated all courts and court operations, Broward County became its own judicial circuit, the 17th Judicial Circuit. That was in 1963. Broward had finally become its own entity in law.
More Than 50 Years Of Remarkable Judicial History
In the intervening half century, many notable cases have been heard by judges and juries in the central courthouse of the 17th Judicial Circuit, and many of those cases have been handled by the partners of Bogenschutz, Dutko & Kroll, P.A.
Michael Dutko recalled his own early days in Broward County when, as a Fort Lauderdale police officer and, later, organized crime detective, he was frequently in and out of the old courthouse as a witness for the prosecution. Many of the early cases, even before he went into private law practice, were settled at an old lunch counter called the 101 Café.
“I came to town in ’76. I started working as a policeman. In ’78 I was transferred to the organized crime division, and our office, at that time, was down the street next to the Downtowner Restaurant,” Mr. Dutko recalled. “So, I spent my days at that office, at the courthouse, if I wasn’t out working on the street. The jail wasn’t built back then. The jail behind the courthouse wasn’t there; that was a flat parking garage.
“But at lunchtime, the 101 Café, which was on that corner of First Avenue and Sixth Street, was one of the places where prosecutors, public defenders, judges often ate lunch; and it was pretty much … it was understood that if you needed to work a case out, if you needed to talk to a prosecutor or if a prosecutor needed to talk to a public defender, you could often find them in the afternoon at the 101 Café. A lot of cases got resolved at that – it was an old lunch counter – and a lot of cases got resolved at that old lunch counter back in those days.”
That lunch counter was demolished to make way for a new parking garage, which opened in 1987. That garage was, itself, razed, only 25 years later. Today, many know of the corner of 1st Avenue and SE 6th Street as the site of the new court tower and, across the street, the Turkish-American Restaurant, which also serves as a bit of a lunch-hour hangout for attorneys and judges.
Dramatis Personae Of Jurisprudence
Some of the biggest cases that have been handled by Bogenschutz, Dutko & Kroll, P.A. have also been stories of great media interest, many from very recent years. However, getting high-profile cases has never been a part of the mission of the law firm. With so much of their own history at the Broward County Courthouse, you might expect the attorneys for Bogenschutz, Dutko & Kroll, P.A. to be less reticent about their successes, but keeping a low profile is part of the culture of the firm.
Mr. Dutko pointed out the firm does everything possible to keep clients out of the spotlight. He conceded that avoiding the press is sometimes impossible, but seeking media coverage is never an option. “The first thing we want to do is get our clients out of the media,” he said.
Even so, as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, itself, observed in a 2010 biographical article about J. David Bogenschutz, Broward County’s most visible cases just seem to end up at Bogenschutz, Dutko & Kroll, P.A.. In the article, another local attorney laments that the firm seems to get “first crack at all the good cases in Broward.”
Media coverage, albeit unintentional, does accord the firm a more visible public record. One such case involved a defendant in the so-called Weston Rock Pit Murder, which happened in 1993. The case involved a group of eight teenagers who lured 20-year old Bobby Kent to a remote area in order to kill him. The case was so infamous at the time, the Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine insert, Tropic, featured a 12-page article about the case.
Mr. Dutko, himself, was the attorney for Alice Willis, who went on trial for murder in 1995. In fact, Ms. Willis’ trial was the very first trial to begin at the newly-constructed North Wing of the existing courthouse, a portion of the current facility that will survive the current rebuilding and renovations. The opening of that wing gave attorneys more room, and it relegated the old portion of the courthouse to handling civil and county court cases.
As for trial of Ms. Willis, it may have been the first to start in the new North Wing, but it was not the first case to be settled there. “We were the first ones to start trial. It was a seven week trial. We weren’t the first ones to finish a trial,” Dutko said. Oddly enough, on the very day Mr. Dutko shared his story for this article, Ms. Willis’ long legal story had just come to an end.
“Alice Willis was convicted of the lesser included offense of murder in the second degree. She received a sentence which was later modified as a result of an appellate decision, and a judge modified her sentence,” Mr. Dutko explained. “And interestingly enough, this morning (April 2, 2014) her probation was finally terminated, and it’s all behind her. It’s been 21 years.”
The world is certainly very different than it was 21 years ago, and dramatically changed from those days in the mid-1970’s, when Mr. Dutko first arrived in South Florida.
The history that has happened since then fills volumes, but the volume of cases filling the court docket has been overwhelming. It is among the plethora of the reasons the new court tower is needed. When asked to recall how the courts have changed since 1976, Mr. Dutko answered in two parts. “One is Broward is just much bigger, a bigger place. There are a lot more people There’s a lot more volume of, higher volume of cases that are filed in the system every day, every week, every year now.
“The other thing is the north wing to the courthouse didn’t exist then,” Mr. Dutko continued. “So back in the days I’m talking about, the late ’70’s the early ’80’s … everything was in what we refer to as the old section of the courthouse. That means all of the felony criminal cases were there on the eighth floor, ninth floor, tenth floor. All civil cases, all county court cases, everything was resolved in that courthouse.”
Mr. Dutko said he had not given much thought to the new courthouse when construction first began, but he did make a couple of observations about the old facility he hopes will be resolved by the new one. “What’s important to me is that citizens … people that are in that building every day are citizens that are called in for jury duty or people that have cases pending and have to come to that building. It’s important to me that they be able to get in as effortlessly as possible,” he said. Mr. Dutko noted that getting into the existing facility is often times a trial, unto itself.
He also noted the current tower, at least the old portion of it, is suffering from severe maintenance issues that have caused many to speculate about the insalubrious condition of the structure. “The greatest shortcoming is, well, first of all, the mold problem we’re all familiar with, that it seems to be a sick building,” Mr. Dutko said. “I hope that everybody is going to be healthier, as the result of getting into the new building.”
Social And Judicial Changes Continue As Broward’s First Century Drawing To A Close
As for the social changes he has witnessed, Mr. Dutko said he hopes the judiciary continues to evolve to reflect the people it serves, but not at the expense of the law. “The most important thing is quality, the quality of the person, the quality of one’s experience, their intelligence and all of those things,” he said. “I think a close second, then, is there needs to be some focus on the diversity, not to the exclusion of quality, but there are many qualified applicants out there that need to be encouraged to seek judicial appointments and judicial positions.”
Mr. Dutko noted the Florida Bar had recently begun a diversity program to attract more qualified people of various ethnic backgrounds. “I know there’s a recent commission that’s been created by the Florida Bar to try to promote greater diversity, as to those seeking judicial appointments, here locally, to the county court and the circuit court,” he stated. “There are a lot of very qualified … prospective minority applicants that don’t seem to apply. I don’t really know what the reason for that is, and that’s what this commission has been designed to do.”
When the first installment of this series began, it was written that the new court tower is a metaphor for the myriad social and judicial changes that have happened in Broward County. Given the nature of the objections to the county’s first circuit court judge, perhaps there is no better ending to this trilogy of essays than to note there are no such objections today. In fact, the climate could be said to be a polar opposite, and the group that objected to Mr. Giblin’s appointment in 1927 is, itself, viewed objectionably today.
In so many forms, it would seem the 21st Century is well underway, and Broward County is ready for its second.