...Shabby courthouse robs law of dignity

A slum: Baltimore's circuit courthouses need major repair, deep cleaning and renovation.

March 13, 2000

THE Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse stands today in near squalor.

Blind Justice would shudder if suddenly she could see.

Courthouse west -- the one with the massive Ionic columns, the one named for the famous civil rights leader -- looks as if a giant prankster dumped a pot of thick coffee on its roof. Brown stains from 67 rusting window air conditioners, streak the outside walls.

The roof leaks so profusely that privately-financed renovation of the Bar Library cannot proceed. A trial had to be stopped in one courtroom recently when water began pouring through the ceiling.

Witnesses, jurors, judges, lawyers and various visitors, standing in line to pass through a metal detector, wonder what sort of security they may expect inside: a shopworn sign says "No Dangerous Weapons" and "Watch Your Valuables."

Many in the court hierarchy believe the buildings have been starved as a tactic for hastening a state takeover. That a cash-strapped city has deliberately withheld money needed to provide even routine maintenance in the hope -- vain so far -- that the state will assume responsibility.

Administrative judges have made impressive efforts to secure public money to make the repairs. Private sources -- law firms and lawyers -- have stepped in to make substantial, but limited contributions. A thoroughly researched proposal to spend $70 million on the project was set aside 10 years ago.

Judge Ellen Heller says the court's physical needs go beyond creature comforts.

"The core of our society living together civilly is resolving disputes by rule of law, so people need to be proud of the court system," she said.

The system strives for efficiency and fairness in a building constructed in 1900, a building that is, in many ways, ill-configured for the demands of the year 2000.

The Calvert Street entrance leads through ornate, arched alcoves, their elegance hidden by a nearly total absence of lighting. A dungeon -- or a prison cell -- could hardly be less inviting. Majestic marble stairways lead to the courtrooms arrayed along dimly lit hallways. Forty percent of the building's light bulbs are burned out -- and the city says it has no replacements.

The St. Paul Street lobby -- used less often -- is marginally better. Its mosaic floor of salmon, gold and teal marble -- contains a memorial to Mr. Mitchell, including a bas relief sculpture and the Medal of Freedom conferred on him by President Jimmy Carter. The proclamation accompanying it heralds Mr. Mitchell's "historic campaign for social justice."

Some $500,000 in public funds will be used to improve both of these lobbies -- but more money will be needed. A committee of judges is meeting with architects to settle on a plan.

Judge Heller -- who once threatened to sweep the sidewalks herself if someone from the city did not -- sounds a bit disarmed as she lists the courthouse problems. She knows the court's problems with back logged cases make it risky to talk about physical improvements -- and she didn't initiate this appeal even as she attempts to have the needs addressed.

She said she is optimistic that the city under Mayor Martin O'Malley will respond to the court's obvious needs. Meetings on the subject have been promising -- suggesting that the strategy of starving the system until the state steps in is over.

A courthouse should be a powerful symbol of law and justice, a statement of our commitment to public order.

Sadly, the Mitchell courthouse symbolizes lack of concern, neglect and sorry political posturing.

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