Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : February 2006

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Under One Roof

~In Baltimore City District Court, civil and criminal domestic violence cases take up common residence~

In an effort to simplify the proceedings for the growing number of domestic violence cases in Baltimore City, the District Court, under the supervision of the Honorable Jeannie Hong, consolidated all civil and criminal domestic violence trials into one building – the Eastside District Court at 1400 E. North Avenue – as of December 1, 2005.

Prior to the new action, victims of domestic violence seeking full-scale justice were required to travel to two separate venues: Eastside handled criminal cases, while civil cases were housed at the Civil Courthouse at 501 E. Fayette Street. In some instances, the travel and ensuing confusion of dealing with two different courthouses discouraged some victims from seeking the full power of the law against their aggressors.

"There was unrest for the victims of domestic violence," notes Hong. "If they were hurt or needed compensation, they would need to go to a civil court and then to a criminal court. This [process] was a huge burden for victims prior to the plan; now, it's all under one roof."

With the new arrangement, civil and criminal cases will be held in courtrooms No. 2 and 5, respectively, at the Eastside Courthouse, which was chosen as the flagship for this design due to the fact that it already possessed an established domestic violence criminal docket in courtroom No. 5. In addition, Eastside will now also provide a representative from the State's Attorney Domestic Violence unit and the House of Ruth, a full-service domestic violence program that features a legal clinic, shelter and 24-hour hotline.

The next step of the ongoing plan is to assemble a full-time Commissioner's office in the building to house all aspects of defense against domestic violence in one location. Then, within the near future, a database of domestic violence civil and criminal case proceedings will be developed, which will allow judges to keep track of certain victims and offenders.

"This new plan organizes both sides of the law," says the Honorable Keith E. Mathews, District Court of Baltimore City. "When victims go to the judge for a protection order, [he or she] can talk to a victim advocate group [i.e., House of Ruth] and a prosecutor – they are all right there."

Dorothy Lenning, the House of Ruth's Clinic Director, echoed Mathews' sentiment, stating, "[This process] encourages victims to use both [civil and criminal] services."

Thus far, the two-month-old program has been full-steam-ahead, however a few "glitches" have arisen in the transferal process, most notably the conversion of courtroom No. 2 at the Eastside Courthouse from an exclusively traffic violations docket into civil domestic violence cases. Nevertheless, Judge Hong remained unfettered, took each possible setback in stride and proclaimed, "We are moving forward."

That forward mindset is exactly what the Honorable Ben C. Clyburn – then a District Court judge serving Baltimore City – had in mind when he attended a VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) conference in Miami, Florida, in October 2004. It was at this event that Clyburn became intrigued by New York's design for its domestic violence cases, which aimed to provide easier accessibility and safety for victims by consolidating every facet of domestic violence protection in the same building.

"This system makes it safer and easier for victims," explains Clyburn. "It's a one-stop-shop location for victims in a stressful state-of-mind. Time is of the essence when getting a person [his or her] safety."

Before Clyburn could begin developing the plan, however, he was promoted to Chief Judge of the District Court of Maryland in November 2004; consequently, he recommended to Mathews that Hong oversee the development of his brain-child, to which Mathews complied. While Hong began to implement this new plan, she confessed that Mathews and Clyburn remained as counsel.

"I am just navigating their direction," Hong humbly admits.

Prior to its implementation, the new domestic violence plan spent approximately one year as "pilot project" of the court. During that time, Hong was assisted in developing the program through monthly meetings of 35-40 people, including representatives from the Public Defender's Office, House of Ruth, Baltimore City Police Department, Baltimore City Sheriffs' Department, State's Attorney Office, Court Commissioners, Court Clerks, District Court and Circuit Court.

"This was a team effort," states Hong. "We are the first courthouse in Maryland to move forward in terms of full protection for domestic violence victims."

Now, through the cohesive effort of governmental programs and officials, Baltimore City's District Court has an all-encompassing roof for Domestic Violence victims – this time, in one location.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: February 2006

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