Courts settle lawsuit over accessibility

City buildings to receive series of renovations

January 15, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's Circuit Courthouses will be made wheelchair-accessible within the next two years as a result of a settlement finalized yesterday in federal court between advocates for the disabled and government officials.

When U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis signed off on the plan yesterday, a dozen disabled people applauded from their wheelchairs.

"I thought this day would never come," said attorney Andrew D. Levy, 43, who has been in a wheelchair for 20 years. "I would almost say I'm speechless, but no one who knows me would believe that."

Under the plan, city and state officials will construct two new entrances to the courthouse complex on Calvert Street. A ramp will be placed at the entrance of the post office for access to Courthouse East. For the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse, a ramp will be constructed on the Fayette Street side.

All courtrooms, jury rooms and one set of bathrooms on each floor will be renovated. (Bathrooms in the Mitchell Courthouse have been done.) A new microphone system will be placed in courtrooms for the hearing-impaired. All water fountains and fire alarms will be lowered.

Construction is expected to cost $1 million. The project is to be completed by September of 2001.

"We will do everything possible to make sure that individuals with disabilities will have full access to our courts," said Maryland's chief judge of the Court of Appeals, Robert M. Bell.

City and state officials said yesterday they are working out how to finance the renovations. If the plan is not put in place they can be punished by Davis, a fact he gently reminded them of yesterday.

"I assure counsel that my keen interest in this case will not wane," Davis said. "What could be more important than the palace of justice being accessible?"

The plan ends a lawsuit filed in 1996 by Levy and the Public Justice Center of Baltimore on behalf of Dale R. Reid, an Eldersburg lawyer, Nathan H. Butler and Jacqueline A. Speciner. The suit alleged that Reid couldn't practice law in the courthouses, that Butler 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.

In August 1998, Judge Davis ruled that the courthouses violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. The plaintiffs worked with the city and state to create the renovation plan.

For Levy, who had to use a wheelchair after his spine was damaged while in law school, said working to make the courthouse easier for him and many others to navigate felt like a life accomplishment.

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