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Editorial Advisory Board: Baltimore City’s courthouse mess

The Circuit Court for Baltimore City is housed in two buildings that are woefully inadequate and are disasters waiting to happen. Visit any county in Maryland, and you will find modern, attractive courthouse facilities. By contrast, the two buildings facing the Battle Monument in Baltimore that house most of the facilities of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City are an embarrassment.

In the spring of 2011, the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse Feasibility Study, funded by the Maryland Stadium Authority, was released to the public. The feasibility study attempts to address serious problems, but falls far from the mark in many of the proposed solutions.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Maryland Stadium Authority paid over $800,000 for the study, the document is both imprecise in its grasp of the history of prior courthouse studies and was done without input from a broad cross-section of courthouse users and constituencies. It appears that many of the things with which we disagree in the study are the result of the planners being advised and assisted by an eight-member “Executive Committee,” composed of the Administrative Judge of the Circuit Court, the City Solicitor, three city administrators and three representatives of the Maryland Stadium Authority, and three “Other Agency Representatives,” the Baltimore City Planning Department Director and two representatives of the Baltimore Development Corporation.

The Executive Committee hardly was representative of the various interests that would be impacted by any courthouse plan. For example, no members of the private bar or any representatives of courthouse occupants, such as the State’s Attorney’s Office, the Clerk of the Circuit Court or the Bar Library were on the Executive Committee. No judge, other than the administrative judge, was on the Executive Committee.

The 2011 Feasibility Study is but the latest study dealing with the needs of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City and its predecessor, the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City. There have been at least four, prior major courthouse studies — 1946, 1969, 1989 and 2003. For the most part, these prior studies are just collecting dust in ancient file cabinets.

The consistent pattern since 1946 has been to follow through on only a part of a study’s recommendations or to do nothing at all. For example, the 1946 study recommended removing the unsightly acoustical tiles on the walls of certain courtrooms in what is now the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse. Sixty-three years later, those tiles still are on the walls.

As much as we have concerns about specifics of the 2011 Feasibility Study, we have a much greater concern that it will meet the fate of predecessor studies and nothing at all will be done. That would be a shame because, unless some consensus among courthouse constituencies can be reached, Baltimore City will continue to have to endure its existing inadequate court facilities. That is, until there is a major security breach or a major electrical fire or an environmental disaster that takes the lives of people who work in and visit the courthouses.

Disagreement on the details

We agree with the 2011 Feasibility Study that Baltimore needs to build a new courthouse for criminal matters. We also agree with the feasibility study that the Mitchell Courthouse and Courthouse East need major reconfiguration. However, we disagree with many of the details.

Here are some examples:

-The 2011 Feasibility Study recommends that the new courthouse be built to the north of Courthouse East. This would be a mistake.

From the Battle Monument to Center Stage, the Calvert-Guilford Street corridor is becoming a ghost town, served by inadequate public transportation. The feasibility study relegates the logical site that is directly south of Courthouse East to second position because of the presence of the Munsey Building on a corner of the site. However, the feasibility study does not consider the acquisition/condemnation of the Munsey Building and use of the whole block for a new courthouse.

In December 2010, the Munsey Building was sold for $13,750,000. Although that is a hefty amount of money to acquire a building that would be leveled for a new courthouse, it is not significant when one considers that the total cost of a new courthouse and related facilities will be several hundred million dollars. Further, the site to the south of Courthouse East is much better located vis-à-vis public transit and the northwest corner of the new courthouse would face the Battle Monument, the historic focus of courthouse facilities in Baltimore.

-The 2011 Feasibility Study recommends that the Mitchell Courthouse be used for juvenile and family law cases. However, a state-of-the-art, well planned Juvenile Justice Center opened in 2003 and is the newest facility of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.

All evidence suggests that the Juvenile Justice Center is working well. If this is the case, and the 2011 Feasibility Study does not suggest otherwise, there is no good reason to abandon it only a few years after it has opened.

If the Juvenile Justice Center is not working, we would be interested to know what the feasibility study for that facility said. The fact that no private lawyer with any juvenile experience was on the Executive Committee responsible for the 2011 Feasibility Study suggests that the proposed move of the juvenile courts back to the Mitchell Courthouse was ill-informed.

-The 2011 Feasibility Study recommends that the main reading room of the Bar Library be carved into two juvenile courtrooms.

The Bar Library is one of the most impressive interior spaces in Baltimore. During the past 25 years, the Circuit Court, with financial assistance from the bar, has restored several spaces in the Mitchell Courthouse, most notably Room 400.

The Bar Library Board, which is supported with both lawyers’ appearance fees and dues from the private bar, has expended significant funds on the Bar Library facilities over the years, including several hundred thousand dollars on improved lighting approximately 10 years ago and the recent restoration of several rooms.

If the powers that be expect any support from the private bar for new or renovated courthouse facilities, the planned gutting of the Bar Library will need to be eliminated. Further, the reconditioning of the Mitchell Courthouse as the venue for the city’s courts of general jurisdiction makes eminent sense and undoubtedly would be received favorably by the private bar.

-The 2011 Feasibility Study recommends significant, but not total renovation of Courthouse East. However, the feasibility study fails to recognize that Courthouse East has no redeeming value whatsoever, other than its façade.

With the exception of the three original federal courtrooms on the fifth floor, all of the courtrooms in the building have been carved out of low-ceilinged space. Even the newest courtrooms, those built approximately 20 years ago on the second floor, have all of the charm of a windowless club basement. There is no way to have both adequate security and elevator/stairway use without building new entrances and elevator blocks.

Open up the process

We do not claim to have all of the answers to Baltimore City’s courthouse mess. From our vantage point as users of the courthouses for many decades, we believe that the optimal plan would be: (1) The erection of a high-rise criminal courthouse immediately to the south of Courthouse East on the block bounded by Calvert Street, Fayette Street, Guildford Avenue and Baltimore Street. (2) Restoration of the Mitchell Courthouse along the lines proposed in the 1989 Masterplan proposed for the building and use of the courthouse solely for civil cases. (3) Total gutting of Courthouse East, retaining only the façade and building a new building inside of it. (4) The use of the most expensive, durable materials and construction methods in all buildings — as the history of the current courthouses illustrates, maintenance in Baltimore City buildings is nonexistent and any facility is likely to be used for decades beyond its intended use.

What we do know is that nothing will be done to solve Baltimore City’s courthouse mess unless all courthouse constituencies are working together to build the political and financial support for new facilities. In particular, no plan can possibly succeed unless the private bar is fully supportive. We call upon the powers that be to open up the process, bring all concerned into the discussion, develop a consensus plan and then work together as a team to build needed new facilities.

Editorial Advisory Board Members Dawna Cobb and Donna Hill Staton did not participate in this opinion.

Editorial Advisory Board
James B. Astrachan, Chair
Laurel Albin
John Bainbridge
Dawna Cobb
Neil Duke
Eric Easton
Arthur F. Fergenson
Elizabeth Kameen
M. Natalie McSherry
C. William Michaels
Frederic Smalkin
Norman Smith
Donna Hill Staton
H. Mark Stichel
Christopher West