Talk about cold justice

From the bench: Circuit Court Judge Lenore R. Gelfman controls the thermostat in her courtroom - and the objections are overruled.

Howard County

September 29, 2000|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Even during the doggiest days this summer, the kind that made your glasses steam up when you got into your baking car, goose flesh appeared inside the Howard County Circuit Court.

It wasn't brought on by rousing witness testimony or passionate closing arguments. It was from sheer cold.

"It's like they're trying to punish us," said one shivering juror during a break in a recent sexual assault case.

Like many aspects of a criminal or civil proceeding in Howard County - such as sentencing the guilty - the setting of a courtroom thermostat is within the judge's discretion. While the courtrooms of Judges Diane O. Leasure and James B. Dudley can inspire fall fashions in mid-July, of the county's five Circuit Court judges, the revered (some say feared) Lenore R. Gelfman has a reputation for maintaining the frostiest air.

Woe to the potential juror who shows up for a Gelfman trial wearing a sleeveless shirt or short skirt, said jury commissioner Steve Merson. Gelfman's courtroom can sometimes dip to about 60 degrees - a mere 20 degrees higher than a morgue, according to a forensic doctor who testified last week in a case before Gelfman.

Evidently that's nothing compared with Gelfman's chambers. More than one staffer attested to seeing frost on her office windows.

"I feel like a Fudgsicle," said bailiff Juanita Robinson. "I go outside and I melt, and I come back inside and I freeze up again."

A juror once asked Robinson if the general frigidity was because the courthouse had failed to pay its energy bills. ( county Director of Public Works Jim Irvin said the air-conditioning bills for the 19th-century courthouse are not significantly higher than those of other county buildings.)

Last week, Robinson was on duty in Gelfman's courtroom, where a man was fighting charges that he killed an 8-month-old girl. The court reporter, Debbie Powers, offered her a blanket to cover her feet. "I think she was kidding," Robinson said.

In fact, Powers likely was not kidding: She does take a blanket to the courtroom, which she sometimes shares with the chilly clerk sitting next to her. On her desk, Powers also keeps her own small thermometer, which she monitors assiduously; she gave one to Gelfman's oft-sweatered secretary as well.

During the four years Powers has worked for Gelfman, she has noticed the leaves change, the snow melt, the blossoms bloom. Regardless of the season, she wears a sweater to work every day.

Powers perhaps is more sensitive to temperature than most; she has severe arthritis, she said, and her doctor has advised her to stay in environments of 70 degrees or warmer as much as possible.

But her personal thermometer has never risen above 66. "Isn't that something?" she said. "Whatever the temperature is, [Gelfman] wants it down."

How does Gelfman respond when Powers or someone else complains about the cold? "I'd rather not comment on that," said Powers, who leaves her Howard County job this week for a position in Washington. Her departure is not influenced by temperature differences with Gelfman, she said: "I love my judge."

Like all Circuit Court judges, Gelfman wears a black robe to the courtroom and sits under hot lights, which could be keeping her toastier than the jurors, clerks, defendants and observers.

Asked about her preference for a nippy courtroom, Gelfman paused a moment. "I like it not stuffy," she said. "The more people that are in there, obviously it does get stuffy."

But as Powers pointed out, one person's not stuffy is "another person's freeze-out."

Naturally, jurors have noticed this and passed complaining notes to the bench. Gelfman says she tries to make sure everyone's comfortable, but "you can't accommodate everyone." Powers said she has never known Gelfman to turn up the thermostat for anyone.

The liberal air conditioning has led some courtroom regulars to ponder whether it's intended to keep jurors from nodding off, a judicial occurrence faced by many hardworking lawyers.

"Talk about ego deflation," said defense lawyer Joseph Murtha. "I'm making my closing argument and a juror is drooling on himself."

But Gelfman denied wielding her thermostat as a sleep repellant. Untimely slumber is not something she worries about, "not in my courtroom," she said.

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