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A glimmer of light in the Baltimore courthouse mess

We have written about the sorry state of the Baltimore City Circuit Court’s two courthouses multiple times in the past decade. Two years ago, we wrote about the fire that recently had occurred in the Mitchell Courthouse and called it a wake-up call. We had thought the powers-that-be had hit the snooze button. However, last month, the Baltimore Business Journal reported the Maryland Stadium Authority has been assisting the circuit court with a review of options for renovating the courthouses and/or building new facilities. This is welcome news.

Our happiness the 2016 wake-up call was not unheeded by the circuit court is tempered by fate that has befallen many prior courthouse studies and plans. For the past 50 years, the circuit court has lived with inadequate facilities and castoffs, such as Courthouse East, which was the federal courthouse and main post office until the federal courthouse and post office moved to other locations in the 1970s.

The members of this board have litigated cases in not only every circuit court courthouse in Maryland, but in courthouses across the United States. To the best of our knowledge, no courthouse complex in the state or the country is as bad as the two courthouses in Baltimore. Notwithstanding the near-universal knowledge among the bench, the bar and the public at large that Baltimore has a courthouse mess and various plans for addressing it, all we have heard from the public officials that are responsible for the courthouses are crickets.

In Maryland, circuit court facilities are the responsibility of local jurisdictions, so the city courthouse is Baltimore’s mess. The mayor and City Council seem to be able to find money for almost everything but dealing in a systematic way with the courthouse mess.

The Baltimore courthouses are dangers in many respects. Modern courthouses separate courthouse personnel, prisoners and the public. Delivering prisoners on Lexington Street and then walking them through the public corridors of the courthouse is a disaster waiting to happen. The courthouses are riddled with lead paint and asbestos. And the circa-1932 and -1950 electrical wiring in the courthouses that now supports 21st century electrical demands likely violates modern safety codes.

It is imperative Mayor Catherine Pugh and the City Council commit now to finding a long-term and effective solution to Baltimore’s courthouse mess. Every day they delay, the potential for a catastrophic event in one or both of the courthouses increases.

We understand the city is poor. But the state is not. Notwithstanding that circuit court facilities are the responsibility of local governments, the state has provided funding for courthouse facilities in several counties, including Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George’s. The circuit court judges who work in the Baltimore courthouses are state employees as are other personnel in the courthouses. At a minimum, the state has a responsibility to provide a safe workplace for its employees. The hundreds of prospective jurors, witnesses, litigants, lawyers and police officers who must appear each day in the courthouses are citizens of the state and deserve its protection, too.

Notwithstanding the fact Pugh and Gov. Larry Hogan are members of different political parties, they have found ways to work together to benefit Baltimore. We urge the mayor and the governor to get together and find ways the state can assist Baltimore with its courthouse mess.

When the Mitchell Courthouse was built in the final days of the 19th century, it was palatial. Some of the grandeur of the building has survived 118 years of hard use. We are not seeking the city and state build a new palace of justice. The options the Baltimore Business Journal reported the MSA was evaluating included ones – such as relocating the courts to the former Social Security Metro West facility – that were substantially less expensive than proposals from past studies.

Times and resources today are very different than they were when Baltimore was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the United States. But every person who works in or uses the courthouses deserves a safe, clean and efficient place. Please, Mayor Pugh and Gov. Hogan, step up and do what needs to be done to solve Baltimore’s courthouse mess

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

John Bainbridge Jr.

Wesley D. Blakeslee

Martha Ertman

Arthur F. Fergenson

Susan Francis

Marcella A. Holland

David Jaros

Ericka King

Stephen Meehan

C. William Michaels

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the Board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the Bench, Bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, majority views and signed rebuttals will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.

Find out more about the members of the Editorial Advisory Board.