Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : December 2005

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MSBA Committee Probes Condition of State Courthouses
~City crisis to be priority~
By Janet Stidman Eveleth

To address the issue of Maryland courthouses in need of repair MSBA President J. Michael Conroy, Jr. created a Courthouse Construction Committee last fall and asked it to explore possible solutions to this situation so that the needs of Maryland citizens are served. While some courthouses in the state need upgrades, others require repairs. However, the condition of two Baltimore City courthouses has deteriorated to the point where it is now a crisis.

Although MSBA’s Committee, co-chaired by the Honorable Marcella A. Holland and Robert B. Kershaw, is seeking measures to address this statewide concern, its priority is the city courthouse crisis. In the last year, conditions at the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse and Courthouse East have been the focus of widespread media coverage. They now pose serious safety, health and fire risks for employees, judges, attorneys, visitors and prisoners.

Historic Masterpiece

use the same
and often
the same
as everyone

It is unfortunate that this beautiful, historic masterpiece has fallen into such a state of disrepair. In 1896, the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse was built by a Baltimore architectural firm and became a “Renaissance Revival prototype for public buildings across the nation and in Washington, D.C., including the Supreme Court,” explains Kershaw. “The Mitchell Courthouse was built as a monumental temple to justice. It was a revolutionary monument structure.”

“No expense was spared,” reports Holland. When it opened it doors in 1900, it was an architectural prize with its beautiful murals, stained-glass windows, marble columns and marble courtrooms. The marble is European, the seven-foot-tall columns are the largest monolithic ones in the world and the lovely Sienna marble in the dome of the circular courtroom hails from the Vatican quarry near Rome, a true treasure.

“I have considered the Mitchell Courthouse a great architectural treasure since I searched titles there for a summer job in the sixth-floor Land Record Office when I was 17,” Kershaw reminisces. “I recall the air conditioning not working then and the roof leaking in the Bar library, repeatedly damaging the ornate plaster coffered ceiling.”

Now, the Mitchell Courthouse is 105 years old and in a state of serious decay. The conditions in this Courthouse and Courthouse East are unsafe, unhealthy and dangerous. “It is a 1900 building in the 21st century that has not even been updated to the 20th century,” explains Holland, who serves as the Administrative Judge for Baltimore City’s Circuit Court. “The worsening conditions are due to neglect over the years. At some point, major things started going wrong, but a ‘Band-Aid’ approach became the traditional way to fix problems,” Holland reports.

The courts are always the last thing on people’s minds, especially when it comes to funding,” explains Holland. “Only when tragedy strikes do the courts come to mind. The Judiciary is an independent branch of government with no independent funding. In Maryland, while the state supports the appellate and district court, the circuit courts, by tradition, are the responsibility of local jurisdictions.”

“This is a real burden for Baltimore City with its impoverished population, problematic infrastructure and tight budget,” Holland continues. “It lacks funds for maintaining and repairing the courthouses. Still, it must be done by the city; the court doesn’t have a say in it.” Holland’s predecessor, Judge Ellen Heller, created a task force to examine renovating the Mitchell Courthouse, which involved a comprehensive needs assessment conducted by RCG-RICCI Associated Architects and Planners. It disclosed major problems.

Today’s City Courthouse

Many large repairs, like roofs, have been needed for years. This lack of repair led to major leaks, especially in court chambers, that caused extensive water problems and mold, sometimes accompanied by toxins. According to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City Courts Needs Assessment Final Report, issued by RCG-RICCI in November 2002, many of the joints in the exterior stonework are open, exacerbating the leaks. Faulty windows have no insulation, further contributing to leaks and a cacophony of city street noise.

The antiquated electrical system violates building code, presenting significant fire hazards, according to the Needs Assessment. There is a lack of emergency lighting and stand-by lighting in some portions of the courthouse, inadequate fire alarms that also violate code and no sprinklers. Both the electrical and mechanical systems are largely inefficient, obsolete, inadequate and, essentially, simply worn-out.

The Needs Assessment also reports that the air quality, in terms of heating and air conditioning, is poor and uneven throughout the two buildings, there is no public drinking water due to contamination, and power outages occur frequently. Plus, the “elevators are constantly broken, and since parts can no longer be purchased, the workmen must replicate them; miraculously, they do,” states Holland.

Another critical problem is that there is no separation between the prisoners and the judges, attorneys, jurors and the public. Prisoners use the same hallways and often the same elevators as everyone else. And, in today’s world of terrorism, lobby security in both courthouses is not only insufficient and well below modern standards, it has only one entrance with an x-ray machine.

Seeking Solutions

Obviously, the main problem is lack of financial resources to fund needed repairs and renovations. Some local jurisdictions, particularly Baltimore City, simply cannot afford it. A working group of judges and volunteers from Heller’s task force, working with the Conference of Circuit Court Judges, had initially met with the Legislature and the Governor seeking funding for the renovation because Baltimore City cannot afford to do it, reports Holland. “But, everyone agrees there is a need.”

Thus, Holland met with a group of MSBA leaders, Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, Judge William D. Missouri and other prominent attorneys last June during MSBA’s Annual Meeting to discuss possible solutions to this problem. Subsequently, MSBA’s President appointed MSBA’s Committee of prominent judges and attorneys to examine the situation and delve into possible comprehensive solutions. Everything from a statewide legislative initiative and an appropriation by the Governor in the capital budget to a special bond bill will be scrutinized.

“All of the original monumental and decorative elements of the building remain and await restoration to bring back their majestic decorum expressing respect for the rule of law and the administration of justice,” proclaims Kershaw.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: December 2005

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