Crowding a problem for court

People, files crammed into every space as officials look for room

March 20, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The paperwork is literally beginning to pile up at the Howard County Circuit Courthouse in Ellicott City.

In a few months, court officials say they will run out of space on the shelves for civil and criminal case files, and staffers will be forced to stack cases on the floor.

"We're out of space," said Ed Corbin, the records room supervisor. "It's going to be difficult to find the paperwork. It's going to be a nightmare."

Court officials say the paper crunch is a major problem, but another one is also causing strain: too many people and too little space.

Howard County has grown, but the courthouse hasn't. It has five judges and four courtrooms and only three jury deliberation rooms, making it difficult to schedule jury trials. Court staffers share office space not only with other employees but also with large filing cabinets on rollers. Some courthouse personnel, including a master of the chancery, don't even have offices in the building.

The problem is especially severe in the clerk's office, says Howard County Clerk Margaret Rappaport.

Rappaport recently requested two more employees from the state but says she doesn't know where to put them -- every cubicle and office is occupied.

"There's no room," Rappaport says.

Some would like a bigger courthouse to accommodate a population that has grown 62 percent -- from 149,932 to 243,247 -- since 1986, when the building was last renovated.

Seeking answers

County officials say a new courthouse is unlikely and are considering several other solutions.

One involves moving courthouse staffers into government offices that might be built on 25 acres off Rogers Avenue in Ellicott City. County officials say they are negotiating the purchase of that land. It is not clear when, if ever, the buildings would be constructed.

Another possible solution comes from a 1994 study that recommended moving prosecutors and the register of wills out of the courthouse and into nearby buildings.

State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon says she wouldn't mind moving as long as the new office were within walking distance of the courthouse.

Register of Wills Kay K. Hartleb opposes any move. She says documents kept in her office are closely related to those in the clerk's office. Relocating her office would add time and inconvenience for people checking the records, Hartleb says.

"Traditionally, the register of wills is always located in the courthouse," she says.

Howard County Sheriff Charles M. Cave says he's also in a tough spot. Part of his staff is in the historic jail across from the courthouse.

Most of the offices resemble rooms in an old house, with floors covered by worn carpets and walls covered with fake wood paneling. One restroom even has a bathtub.

In winter, the building is drafty and cold, deputies say. In summer, it's hot and muggy.

Cave says the building needs a top-to-bottom renovation because "it's not fit to work in."

"It's not a matter of whether I would like" renovations, Cave says. "I need it very desperately."

Though a decision on relocating courthouse staff to other buildings is likely a few years away, a more pressing concern will have to be dealt with during the next six months: the growing number of case files stacking up in the clerk's office.

Corbin, the records supervisor, says the courthouse has about 60,000 civil cases and 40,000 criminal cases stored in two rooms. Every year, files for another 7,000 cases -- many several inches thick -- are stacked on the shelves. Files for criminal cases must be kept for at least 12 years and most civil cases must be stored forever.

Six-month deadline

Within six months, Corbin says, clerks will begin stacking the files on the floor. Shelves already are almost full. Clerks have begun piling case files and boxes on the very top of the shelves, violating the fire code that requires 18 inches of empty space below the sprinklers.

To alleviate that space crunch, clerks have begun taking inventive approaches to accommodate paper and themselves.

Filing cabinets are kept in stairwells, and criminal docket sheets are stored in the clerk's lunchroom.

Every piece of furniture has a dual purpose: the long counter in the front of the office holds files, and many offices double as file rooms.

Computers one solution

Rappaport says an easy solution would be to start storing the case files on computer disks. But funding for expensive computer equipment is unlikely in the near future.

State judiciary officials said putting case files on computer discs also would likely require judicial rule changes, allowing the computerized files to supplant paper ones that contain judges' signatures.

The technology to convert to a paperless courthouse exists, says Sally Rankin, a state judiciary spokeswoman, who points to new computers that are being used to store land records.

Last year, the Howard County clerk's office began using that computerized system. But the computers store land records only for the past 10 years, leaving more than 100 years of deeds on microfilm. That means two separate systems -- with their own bulky machines -- are taking up space in the records room.

Rapport says it would cost more than $100,000 to put all the records on computers.

"I've done everything I can to make more room," Rappaport says.

Courthouse history

The courthouse was built in 1843 and underwent renovations in 1932, 1962 and 1986. The first courthouse was a small building constructed circa 1840 on Fels Lane in historic Ellicott City. Officials moved the courthouse up the hill to its current location because farmers going to market with their animals disrupted court proceedings.

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