Judge orders easier access for disabled City Circuit Court has 'serious barriers' to wheelchair users

'It's not accessible'

State, city officials argue over costs of renovating court

September 25, 1998|By Dennis O'Brien and Caitlin Francke | Dennis O'Brien and Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

A federal judge has ordered city and state court officials to make it easier for the disabled to use the Baltimore Circuit Court -- a project the city's top judge said yesterday will cost millions.

U.S. District Court Judge Andre M. Davis said the courthouse complex on Calvert Street has "serious barriers" for people who use wheelchairs and ordered lawyers for the city and state to work with him on a plan to make the buildings accessible "with deliberate expedience."

"There are serious ramifications when the very institution designed to ensure the delivery of equal justice under law to all individuals perpetuates such discrimination," Davis wrote in a four-page ruling issued Wednesday.

Davis ruled in favor of three plaintiffs who filed the suit against city and state court officials, alleging that conditions at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse and Courthouse East on Calvert Street violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

The act ensures access for the handicapped in all public buildings.

"The underpinnings of our democracy is the courthouse system and it's not accessible," said plaintiff Dale R. Reid, an Eldersburg lawyer who uses a wheelchair and has difficulty getting around both courthouses. "A whole segment of the population is being discriminated against."

Reid, attorney M. Gayle Hafner and Jacqueline A. Speciner filed suit in 1996 with help from the Public Justice Center of Baltimore.

The suit alleged that Reid couldn't practice law in the courthouses, that Hafner was being denied access to jury duty and that Speciner could not use the courthouse as a witness.

Speciner had to testify in a court hearing from the rear of the courtroom because her wheelchair could not fit into the area near the witness stand, her attorney said.

The question that immediately arose last night was who was going to pay for the renovations. The plaintiffs' attorney, Deborah M. Thompson, said both the city and state should pay.

Lawyers for the state say the city of Baltimore should pick up the tab.

Baltimore Circuit Court Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan said that he has pleaded with city budget officials for years to fund renovations to bring the buildings into compliance with federal law.

Courthouse East is in the middle of a $2 million renovation project funded by a state grant. That renovation will bring the courthouse partially into compliance with the law, Kaplan said. But he acknowledged that additional improvements are needed.

"Its always in the millions. It's not something you can do for $2.50," Kaplan said. "We are trying to comply with what money we have -- It's the other things that we don't have money for that someone is going to have to come up with."

The Mitchell Courthouse was built in 1900. Courthouse East was constructed as a post office in 1932 and deeded to the city in 1978.

Clinton Coleman, a spokesman for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, declined to comment last night on whether the city would appeal the ruling.

Reid, who has been practicing law for 24 years, said that the Baltimore Circuit Court complex is the worst courthouse in the metropolitan area for him to navigate. Many of the bathrooms, conference rooms, judge's chambers and portions of some courtrooms are inaccessible, he said.

To get into Courthouse East, Reid said he must enter through the entrance garage at the rear of the building, which means dodging cars and inhaling exhaust fumes, and be escorted by a sheriff's deputy in and out of the building.

To get into the Mitchell Courthouse, Reid said he must use a wheelchair entrance on the Lexington Street side of the building and tell clients who are barred from that entrance to go in by the Calvert Street entrance and meet him on the second floor.

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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