Justice, with Dundalk flair

Court: In the interest of efficiency, the old Dundalk District Court is slated to close. But colorful memories endure.

February 27, 1999|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Pacing outside Dundalk District Court, the woman with iridescent hair and pink pedal-pushers gloats over beating a charge of assaulting a male acquaintance during a little east-side saloon misunderstanding.

"I was nol processed," she exclaims, a cigarette dangling in her lips. "I won't see that bum I slapped anymore, I promised His Honor."

In the stale, yellow light of Dundalk's two courtrooms, assorted defendants -- barroom queenies, stumbling executives caught speeding on Interstate 95, shoplifters -- have stood at the bar of justice where 200 cases are dispatched weekly.

But after three decades, this garage-turned-courthouse is slated to close this summer with the consolidation of the county's District Court system. Towson will have six courtrooms, Essex and Catonsville three each.

On Thursday, legislation that would rescue the venerable institution in the heart of old Dundalk passed the state Senate.

But the bill faces an uncertain fate in the House of Delegates, and Gov. Parris N. Glendening has deferred to judicial leaders who support the consolidation and want the courthouse closed.

While that decision is pondered in Annapolis, the Dundalk court's colorful history and style live on -- for a few more months, at least.

"You never see these kinds of cases and people anywhere else except Dundalk," said Judge G. Darrell Russell.

"The mix is just perfect. It's a lovely parade of real people, people who take the drudgery out of sitting on the bench. I'll miss it."

One favorite story is of Glue Man, a defendant who couldn't generate the courage to step before a judge in Dundalk.

So, one day in 1988, before sunrise, he squirted Crazy Glue into the door locks of the courthouse. Nobody -- judges, bailiffs, clerks or citizens -- could enter.

"One of the judges called my father, and my dad had to climb to the roof and go in through a vent," said Harry Kaminkow of Dundalk Aluminum.

"They took out all the locks and replaced them. Nobody could ever prove that guy did it."

Justice stood still for a half-day in Dundalk. And the mystery man was never prosecuted.

Michael L. McCampbell, chief administrative judge for Baltimore County's District Court system, fondly recalls defending clients as a new lawyer in Dundalk.

"Dundalk was unique in that church ministers accompanied people to court for spiritual support," said McCampbell, who spent 12 years as a U.S. Navy electronic warfare specialist and five years as a police officer with Howard County, all the while attending law school.

"Other defendants were ashamed their name would appear in the weekly community paper. Some say Dundalk might lack a sophistication, but it never suffered for honesty."

Dundalk's court is different in another way, too. Many who work there feel as if a family is being shattered. Judges were recognized on the street and greeted warmly; court employees often sat together at lunch and devoured quantities of Captain Harvey's overflowing cheese steak submarine sandwiches.

When bailiff Bill Stover's wife died last June, dozens of people who had passed his security check or merely appeared before a judge showed up at the funeral home.

"It's a real court in a real neighborhood," said Judge Robert N. Dugan. "I decided to stay here until the end, to sit and watch the Titanic sink."

The courthouse was opened in 1973, two years after the District Courts replaced the magistrate system.

The state leased the building at 100 Center Place, down the street and around the corner from Avara's Academy of Hair Design, in a former garage where buses and taxis were repaired. The state carved out two courtrooms, administrative offices and a 12-by-12-foot lockup.

Norman Lauenstein, a lawyer who served on the County Council for 16 years, remembers distinctions in minor criminal cases when the courthouse first opened.

"It seemed the kids in Towson were into booze and the teen-agers in Dundalk and Essex stole hubcaps off of cars," Lauenstein said.

Today, younger defendants come to trial for handgun violations, underage drinking, theft, drugs. Some strut into court in exaggerated baggies and earrings. They slump on the hallway bench with empty stares drawing disapproving glances from the security men at the metal detector.

A young man, who says he represents the American Nazi Party, walks the hallway wearing a black jacket -- punctuated by an American flag with a jagged symbol where the field of stars normally is.

Another man, red hair fashioned in a bowl cut, is charged with driving without his registration and insurance. The defendant says he didn't have enough time to get a new registration card.

"And why couldn't you get one?" Dugan inquires.

"Sir," the defendant replies, "I was in the Anne Arundel Detention Center."

The judge forbids him to drive a car until his legal cases are cleared.

The daily grind at Dundalk draws such courtroom observers as John Alawat, a 55-year-old, self-employed Dundalk resident.

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