Circuit courthouses need major work

Concerns include air systems, rodents, windows, elevators

January 12, 2001|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Some days, courtrooms in Baltimore's circuit courthouses on Calvert Street are so cold that jurors have to blanket themselves in their coats, and lawyers swear they can see their breath when they talk.

Other days, courthouse rooms can be so hot that employees fall ill, and lawyers wish they could argue their cases in T-shirts instead of suits.

Judges get stuck in elevators. Pigeon droppings pile up on window ledges. Mice run through offices.

Now, after years of complaints by judges and other employees, a powerful state legislator has taken up the cause of renovating the crumbling courthouses.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he has asked Gov. Parris N. Glendening to include funds in his budget for minor repairs and to study the renovation needs of the city's two downtown courthouses, one of which is a century old.

The conditions at the courthouse complex are "an abomination," said Rawlings, a West Baltimore Democrat. "It's known to be infested with rats. It's known to have its elevators shut down. ... This is not an American way to dispense justice."

Rawlings said he met with Glendening in November. He said he did not propose an exact dollar figure but was seeking start-up money for what could be multimillion-dollar renovations.

"I would be greatly disappointed if there is not a recognition by the governor that we need to do something," Rawlings said. "There are very significant problems in that facility. ... The people of the community go there to seek justice and see a building that seems to despise justice by the look of the place."

Glendening declined to discuss whether he has included money for the project in his budget, which he said would be released in the coming weeks.

Of immediate concern are the courthouses' air systems, the elevators, the windows and the dingy exterior, said Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller. Heller called courthouse conditions "unacceptable," particularly the air systems which emit blazing heat or frigid air.

Heller said that during a trial she presided over in the summer, the jurors wrote her a note telling her that they refused to return to the courtroom unless the temperature was raised above 50 degrees.

"They were sitting there in the middle of summer with their coats on," Heller said.

Judges routinely call her to complain of soaring temperatures in their courtrooms, some of which don't have windows; last month, four employees went home ill because it was about 100 degrees in an office.

In addition, Heller had to close a courtroom because a judge came down with respiratory problems that his doctor said were likely caused by mold in the ducts and rodent and bird debris in the ceiling.

The judge who had used the courtroom before developed such serious lung problems that he had to be hospitalized several times, Heller wrote in a letter to Rawlings in November.

Another area of concern, Heller said, is the elevators, which break down frequently.

On Dec. 4, a judge with the Court of Special Appeals, the state's second-highest court, was trapped in an elevator more than 30 minutes. The elevator did not have a working telephone or alarm button.

Three days later, two employees were stuck about 45 minutes, Heller said.

The window frames in both courthouses are "literally rotting away," she said. When judges try to open windows, another problem presents itself: Pigeon droppings cover window ledges, threatening to blow inside.

Heller said that in recent months, she has gotten a twice-monthly extermination contract to kill rodents and secured aid from the city in addressing such issues as timely cleaning of bathrooms.

The city has also agreed to paint the inside of Courthouse East, and leftovers from a $500,000 state grant are being spent on retiling and sprucing up public corridors in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse across the street.

But, she said, more work needs to be done. The buildings must be completely revamped for the computer age - a proposal that would require millions of dollars. She said she is creating a committee to look into a long-term plan for the courthouses.

The buildings "were designed for another time and another era," Heller said. "The way of trying cases has changed. If [the buildings] are going to be able to meet the needs of the justice system for the next century, they have to be totally restored."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.