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.
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.
use the same
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.
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.
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
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.
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.