Piedra helped wage a successful campaign for a new Miami courthouse
By the time COVID-19 struck, the South Florida legal community was well versed on the perils of hidden pathogens.
For all its charm and history, the 23-story Miami-Dade County civil courthouse was infested with mold and a potential health hazard. Once the venue of an Al Capone trial, the structure has 1950s era air conditioning, asbestos problems, and is not fully ADA compliant.
To Coral Gables attorney and board member Jorge Piedra, it was an afront to Miami’s status as a world-class metropolis.
“It’s an iconic, historic structure that should be preserved,” Piedra said. “But it doesn’t work as a modern courthouse anymore. Palm Beach County has a beautiful courthouse, and Broward is getting one, and ours was just inadequate.”
So, when Piedra became Cuban American Bar Association president in 2018, he helped wage a successful campaign for a new courthouse. The effort involved behind-the-scenes lobbying, letter writing, interviews, and convincing the community at large of the potential economic benefits.
Last year, Miami-Dade County approved a $267 million facility that Plenary Group, under a public-private partnership, will own and operate when it’s completed in 2024.
For the complex litigation specialist, father of five, Little Havana Kiwanis volunteer, and Florida Bar leader, the campaign was no small commitment.
“I used the bully pulpit and I attended more county commission meetings than I think anybody would ever want to attend,” he said. “I could see them rolling their eyes every time I walked in, but it was important to make sure that they knew that CABA supported it, and the community supported it.”
Piedra is quick to say that he was part of a larger effort by the legal community that was spearheaded by 11th Circuit Chief Judge Bertila Soto and Civil Administrative Judge Jennifer Bailey.
Local political leaders also led the charge, Piedra said, including commissioners Sally Heyman, Esteban Bovo, and Rebecca Sosa.
Piedra marvels that when local voters rejected a bond referendum to pay for a new courthouse five years ago, the two judges were undeterred.
“They got right back on the horse and looked for an alternative to a bond referendum and they found one, amazingly, and it worked,” he said.
Judge Soto says Piedra’s contribution “made all the difference.”
“We are grateful to Jorge Piedra and many of the attorneys in Miami, our legal leaders who did a wonderful job in raising awareness about the need for a new civil courthouse,” Judge Soto said. “As they say, it takes a village, and we are blessed to have had the support of dedicated and tireless attorneys like him and many others — we couldn’t have done it without them.”
Piedra’s fellow board member, Roland Sanchez-Medina, says his friend of 20 years invested more than time and energy in the courthouse campaign. Piedra could have forever been associated with a very public failure, he said.
“You’re really putting yourself out there,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, if it isn’t successful, there’s a certain element of risk.”
Given his professional and family responsibilities, his Board of Governors service, and service to local community organizations, it’s a wonder Piedra ever sleeps, Sanchez-Medina said.
“What makes Jorge Piedra special is not only his talent as an attorney, which is crystal clear, but what really resonates with me is his passion for the community, whether it’s the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana, or CABA, or helping Miami-Dade County build a new courthouse, he is someone who always dedicates his time and effort to important issues that make a difference in our community,” Sanchez-Medina said.
When he’s not working, Piedra enjoys his passions, deep-sea fishing and golf, with his children, Sanchez-Medina said.
Piedra said he learned the value of hard work from his parents, who ran a tuxedo rental business in Westchester. His father, who passed away in 2019, loved chatting up the customers as they prepped for family milestones, quinceañeras, high school proms, weddings, “and sometimes second and third weddings,” Piedra jokes.
“He loved to talk to everybody that came in, he’d go down to the corner and have Cuban coffee with them,” he said. “He could talk about anything, especially politics and baseball.”
Piedra got his first taste of public service working as a college intern, and later as a full-time staff member, for former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.
One of Piedra’s fondest memories is accompanying Graham on one of his legendary “workdays,” where Graham would spend a day performing the job of a random constituent.
“It wasn’t a political gimmick,” Piedra said. “It was immediately after Hurricane Andrew and we were down in Homestead, working with FEMA and trying to get help to migrant workers. He got down there in the heat and trenches.”
Lawyers are required to give back to the community, but Piedra says that’s not why he feels drawn to public service.
“The people that I interact with are the people that are involved and give back in some way,” he said. “Those are the happy lawyers for the most part, and it’s one of the reasons I always encourage young lawyers to get involved with something that they are passionate about. It will make you a much more complete person and make you feel better about what you do.”