Stop 13: The 1980 East Pasco Judicial Center (Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center)
Look at the sprawling modernistic building at the back of Hugh Embry Library to the northeast. Bustling with the activity of jury trials and government business, it does not lend itself to a physical visit but does possess noteworthy history in the county’s development.
It was opened as a judicial center in 1980, and is most commonly referred to since 1999, as the ‘East Pasco Judicial Center.’ Many historians proclaim that history of artifacts and structures is notable from the age of 50, and seeing as though the judicial center is approaching a half of a century in age, we include it on the tour as a story of unbridled growth and the need for infrastructure of government and judicial services for a growing population.
Inside the East Pasco Judicial Center, a lovely engraved black plaque penned by the Pasco Board of County Commissioners and the Historical Preservation Committee in 1987 to commemorate the centennial from 1887 to 1987 clarified the hierarchy of the buildings and begins with:
On June 2, 1887, following construction of railroads through the area, Pasco County was created by the Florida Legislature out of the southern end of Hernando. It was named in honor of Samuel Pasco of Jefferson County- a native of England…
It concludes with—Pasco County government was conducted in a small building, rented from Coleman and Ferguson, until 1889 when a frame courthouse was erected following the countywide referendum in which Dade City was chosen county seat. In 1909, it was replaced by the domed brick structure on Courthouse Square. A county building was opened at New Port Richey in 1961. A new courthouse in Dade City and an identical judicial center in western Pasco County were constructed in 1979-80.
The story of the 1909 courthouse was one of a new frontier in need of a governing center, an authentic courthouse from the likes of a well-known architect and builder. The 1980 judicial center was built in response to tremendous population growth with a modernistic look.
Consider that an individual moving to Dade City in the 1970s would encounter only one courthouse, the 1909 courthouse (Stop 1) that contained judges’ offices, the Clerk of the County Court, a holding cell, and the Public Defender and a few school board offices squeezed in the attic. Within a decade, several locations replaced the one courthouse. Retired Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper recalled Joe McClain, prosecutor and the State Attorney Office were there as well. Imagine there was only one courtroom, overlooking 7th Street in the 1970s and spittoons were still present in the courthouse.
This tug of war for the county seat was reminiscent of the 1891 historical struggle to have Dade City declared the official county seat in a competitive election. Parallels in planning, deal making, and strategizing are similar.
Somewhere in the time span from 1909 to 1979 with tremendous growth and development, the county commission tiptoed around the state law that required Florida counties to provide court services in their one designated county seat which in this case was Dade City.
Officials in fact, addressed the Florida legislature about the issue of a second courthouse. In May of 1959, State Representative and lawyer, Joseph A. McClain introduced a special state law for a branch courthouse for West Pasco County which was approved by the Florida Legislature. In March of 1962, Circuit Judge Richard Kelly proposed to the County Commission they add a Circuit Court Chambers at the County building in New Port Richey. Sam Allgood and Jack McPherson provided a resolution from attorneys in the west west side of the county backing Judge Kelly’s request. An amendment to the Florida Constitution, anticipated at that time to allow jury trials in West Pasco was passed thereafter.
Soon after, branches of the sheriff’s office, tax collector, tax assessor, judicial chambers, circuit court clerk, and district justice of the peace moved in. Rationale of course, was that west-side residents as well as officials had to drive 45 miles through winding roads to arrive in Dade City from the west.
In 1966, the New Port Richey Courthouse was built on Sunset Boulevard which contained a correction facility with a pair of two-person cells and one 16-person holding cell along with the sheriff’s office and the west side communications center. A Dade City corrections facility on North 5th housed 124 inmates and served as the Sheriff’s Office East Communication Center.
Finding space for the burgeoning needs was significant. With expansion on the west side, the Pasco County Sheriff’s office, court reporter, and public defender were moved to double-wide trailers and the State Attorney’s office was in a rented space in a nearby New Port Richey Plaza Shopping Center on U.S. 19 within the Custom Commerce Center being used for office space.
In 1974, The Pasco County Planning Commission was allowed to move from Dade City to New Port Richey. The County Commission already had authorized switches for departments that had outgrown cramped offices in the New Port Richey courthouse annex.
As a replacement courthouse was being considered, the commission relied upon the 1959 amendment and moved forward. An advocate for developing identical plans for the two new-age courthouses was Administrative Judge Lawrence Keough who convinced the County Commission to go with a modern style to be used on both the East and West judicial centers/new Courthouses. Using the virtually identical designs would reduce cost and expedite the building of both the West Juducual Center and the East Judicial Center in 1979 and 1980.
With the opening of the replacement courthouses known as Judicial Centers, growth continued. On January 31 of 1991, an addition of a seventh full time circuit court judge was added. Clerk Jed Pittman was planning to open a 1.1-million-dollar state-of-the-art department and evidence storage building that would ease the county’s storage building in Dade City. At that time, Dade City housed all the old court files for both sides of the county. Four circuit judges and two county judges in New Port Richey shared three courtrooms.
To ease the space crunch further in West Pasco, Judge W. Lowell Bray succeeded in getting the County to turn the entire Government Center over to the courts and all the court services and move the county government into a new office building. Chief Deputy Clerk Harold Sample lead the effort to build a conventional, no frills office building between the West Pasco Judicial Center and Sheriff’s Office so that the offices of the Tax Collector, Property Appraiser, Elections Supervisor, County Administrator, and other officials could be moved out of the West Pasco Judicial Center. In East Pasco, the same was accomplished and a new brick East Pasco Judicial Center opened in November 2000 at the corner of Live Oak and 6th Street.
As for the naming of the East Pasco Judicial Center, this occurred a couple of decades into the life of the building. Renaming efforts became trendy in the early decade of the twenty-first century. Speculation was strong that the east judicial center would be named after Commissioner Sylvia Young in 2000. Tribune Columnist Tom Jackson wrote a piece advocating for the twenty-year commissioner to be honored with naming. In the end however, the untimely death of former Pasco County attorney Robert D. Sumner jetted the naming in a different direction over a decade later.
The East Judicial Center at this very location was rededicated in 2011, as the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center. At the 2011 rededication and naming, people swapped stories of the county attorney, Robert D. Sumner who served a decade as county attorney. Then County Commissioner Ted Schrader recalled that Sumner coached little league and helped in co-founding the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village. Sumner and his wife also owned the iconic hotel, The Edwinola for several years and were an integral part of the twentieth-century history of Dade City.
Sumner passed away at the age of 76, in 2011. A Pasco High School graduate, Sumner worked at his father’s grocery store in Zephyrhills and at American Can making containers for orange juice concentrate before college and eventual graduation from Stetson Law in 1964. He took on the job as county attorney in 1967 and then again in 1999, retiring in 2008 from that position. A photo of his graduation photo from Stetson Law School is included.