Federal Court on the Move

August 22, 1993

President Clinton's choice of three new federal judges for Maryland has a significance beyond the identities of the nominees. All three are well qualified for the federal bench -- one is a state judge, one a federal magistrate and one a state's attorney. More significant is that all three live in the Washington suburbs. They will sit in a new courthouse in Greenbelt when it opens in mid-1994.

For the first time, all but a token few federal cases won't be heard in Baltimore. When the idea of creating a southern division of the district court gained political strength five years ago, local lawyers and federal judges rose in opposition. Only a third of the cases heard here originate in the Washington suburbs or in Southern Maryland. Moving a large share of the court's business down the road was not justified, they argued.

In part it was a matter of economics: Baltimore lawyers had an advantage over Washingtonians in servicing clients in federal court. In part it was a reluctance by the judges to divide their jurisdiction. Balanced against that was the inconvenience of lawyers, clients and witnesses in traveling another 30 minutes or to come here.

But that debate is over. The new $35 million courthouse in Greenbelt is under construction. It is another monument to the political clout of Rep. Steny Hoyer, whose district embraces much of the new court's jurisdiction. Now the issue is how to manage the new court, which will be a division of the court here, not a district unto itself.

Breaking up a court that has functioned as a unit for a couple of centuries is not trivial. Federal court cases are assigned by automatic rotation. Dividing them among three judges, rather than Maryland's full complement of 10, makes "judge shopping" easier. Administrative staff will be divided between two locations some 30 miles apart. Adjusting workloads will not be a matter of moving files from one desk to another. Because of budget stringency, people will be moved to Greenbelt rather than new ones hired, causing problems in several court-related offices like the U.S. attorney.

Still, the Washington suburbs are emerging as a fringe city. Increasingly, it demands its own facilities. But if the new court reinforces the alienation of many Washington suburbanites from the rest of Maryland, the division will prove a mistake.

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