South Florida judges voted unanimously to endorse a plan put forth by the Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority to seek public-private partners to build a new federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale.

The unanimous vote by the judges of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida inches the plan for a new courthouse forward. It still must be approved by the DDA board, a courthouse committee, Congress and the General Services Administration.

The Fort Lauderdale legal community has long pushed for a new federal courthouse to replace the existing downtown building on Broward Boulevard. The monolithic structure started to experience flooding shortly after it opened in 1978. While repairs have been done, the flooding has only gotten worse, say the judges. Buckets are common sights in the courthouse corridors and holding cells during the rainy season.

Some mold was found during recent testing, although no one has reported any related health issues, said U.S. District Judge William P. Dimitrouleas, chair of the Fort Lauderdale federal courthouse task force.

The task force was established in 2009 to pursue options for the city to find funding for a new building. However, with the city in sixth place on the GSA’s national priority list for new courthouses, funding would not be available until 2025. And Broward County, more intent on building a new state courthouse, has been lukewarm about donating land for the purpose.

City leaders, the legal community and the Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority got together to propose a bold idea: a public-private partnership. Under the plan, a private developer would build the structure and, in return, receive monies through leases and parking.

The GSA and Congress would have to approve such a plan, which has never been undertaken for a federal courthouse and would serve as a pilot project, Dimitrouleas said.

The judges of the Southern District of Florida voted on the proposal by email earlier this week, Dimitrouleas said. Their vote, which was forwarded to the Downtown Development Authority, endorses the issuance of a request for letters of intent from developers and does not endorse any particular developer.

"If Congress were to approve moving forward with a (public private partnership) project, the selection of a specific private partner or PPP proposal likely would be made by Congress itself or made by the General Services Administration pursuant to a process that they will establish," states the letter signed by U.S. District Judge Donald L. Graham, who is acting chief judge this month. "Nevertheless, the Court does fully endorse exploration of the PPP concept."

The Fort Lauderdale Courthouse Committee is expected to approve the proposal at its June 26 meeting.

"Thanks to the efforts of the task force and particularly the city of Fort Lauderdale and Mayor Jack Seiler, for the first time in a decade I am encouraged that we might finally get something off the dime and get somewhere with this," said Terry Russell, a member of the courthouse committee and a partner at Fowler White Boggs in Fort Lauderdale.

While Russell called the situation "desperate," Dimitrouleas stopped short of that characterization.

"I don’t think the judges are going to abandon the courthouse we’re in and hold court in Miami or West Palm Beach, but I think the citizens of Fort Lauderdale deserve a better facility and a safer facility," the judge added.