Government Law

16 Lawyers Do Battle, 6 Interlocutory Appeals re Unpaid $357K Art Bill for 'Taj Mahal' Courthouse


The Florida Supreme Court has assigned the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach to oversee a litigation battle royale concerning an unpaid $357,000 bill for 369 framed historic photographs that were supposed to hang in a sister appellate court’s expensive new home.

Known as the “Taj Mahal” courthouse, the new building constructed for the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee at a cost of some $50 million has previously sparked a grand jury investigation (it went nowhere), the resignation of an appellate court judge blamed for what critics characterized as massive overspending on luxuries and a new state supreme court rule that bars judges from lobbying lawmakers without approval from those in charge of the judicial budget.

But scheduled for a bench trial later this month is yet another issue concerning the project—whether the state’s chief financial officer, currently Jeff Atwater, has properly refused to ante up for the $357,000 contract with Signature Art Gallery to provide the photos. Meanwhile, at least 16 lawyers have been drawn into the fray, in which six interlocutory appeals are pending. Hence, the Florida Supreme Court has tapped the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach to resolve these disputes, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

Among the issues to be decided is whether Atwater, as a state constitutional officer, is protected from having to testify about his decision-making in deciding not to pay the bill. Lawyers for the art gallery and Peter R. Brown Construction Inc. of Clearwater, with which the art gallery contracted to frame and hang the photos, were given a green light by Leon Circuit Judge Charles A. Francis to obtain his testimony, but that ruling is now being appealed, another Tampa Bay Times article explains.

Both Atwater and his predecessor in the job have said there was no money budgeted to pay the art gallery bill. Potentially central in deciding the case is whether the photos are properly characterized as art (on which expenditures are limited by state law $100,000, the newspaper says) or fixtures (they will be permanently attached to the court’s walls). Meanwhile, they are being kept in climate-controlled storage.

The gallery’s owner, Mary Maida, is represented by lawyers at Foley & Lardner in Tallahassee, including her husband, Thomas J. Maida, who is the managing partner of the law firm’s office there. The construction company is represented by Robert H. Buesing of Tampa, who co-chairs the commercial litigation practice group at Trenam Kemker.

If they win, the state potentially will have to pay their legal bills, the Times reports.

Though the construction company has formed an alliance with the art gallery in the suit, it is technically a defendant, St. Peters Blog noted in a post about the case earlier this year.

Earlier coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Judges Get Mahogany, Granite Counters, Soundproof Toilets and More at New ‘Taj Mahal’ Courthouse”

ABAJournal.com: “Facing Ethics Case re $50M ‘Taj Mahal’ Court Building Project, Judge Points Finger at 14 Colleagues”’

ABAJournal.com: “Fla. Appellate Judge at Center of $48.8M ‘Taj Mahal’ Court Construction Controversy Resigns”

ABAJournal.com: “Fla. High Court Approves New Rule Prohibiting Judges from Lobbying Lawmakers”

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