A divided federal court

August 11, 1993

Whether you think the Washington suburbs of Maryland and the rest of the state are growing together or pulling apart, the nomination of three new federal judges is an important development. It goes beyond the three nominees recommended by Sen. Paul Sarbanes and formally designated by President Clinton. On a federal district bench encompassing the whole state, judges from Montgomery and Prince Georges counties have been rare. But all three nominated last week are from those counties. More important is the fact that all three will sit in a new court house in Greenbelt, not in Baltimore.

Historically, federal trials have been conducted in the court house here. As the Washington suburbs have grown they have generated more of the federal court's case load -- now roughly a third of the filings. Lawyers from Washington and its suburbs complained about having to travel to Baltimore. Not until the late '80s were any district court cases -- as opposed to lesser issues heard by federal magistrates -- tried near Washington, and even then there were very few. More to the point, Washington-area lawyers were at something of a competitive disadvantage against their Baltimore colleagues within walking distance of the court.

Judicially speaking, there were good arguments against splitting the court between two locations some 30 miles apart. The distance is not as great as in other states where federal courts are based in more than one city. But politically the dispute was one-sided. Rep. Steny Hoyer, whose district covers Southern Maryland and much of the Washington suburbs, pushed through a bill requiring a new court house in that area, to be a division of the court here. So a new, $35 million court house is under construction in Greenbelt. Assuming their likely confirmation, the three new judges will sit there starting by the middle of next year.

The new court will save lawyers, witnesses and jurors from the Washington area some 30 minutes of drive time. It may induce some clients there to hire local lawyers rather than Baltimore firms. At the same time it will split the administrative and support staffs of the Maryland district.

Because of budget stringency, the courts and related offices can't hire more people. That means some staff will be transferred from Baltimore to Greenbelt, impairing efficiency to some extent. The greater danger is the potential for reinforcing a pattern of parochialism as the state divides into separate legal enclaves.

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