The folders on top of the cabinets in the Howard County Circuit Court file room reach so high they almost brush the sprinklers -- a clear violation of fire codes.
Boxes containing files crowd the narrow paths in the clerk's office, allowing less than 2 feet of space for workers to pass.
In this tightly packed office, there is nowhere else to put the files, court officials say.
Crowding has long been a problem in the county's historic 158-year-old courthouse in Ellicott City, a building that served a variety of county functions in its early days.
Now it is where serious crimes are prosecuted.
But with plans in the works to move the state's attorney's office out of the courthouse and about a half-mile down the road to the Carroll Building, perhaps by late spring, relief appears to be in sight -- about 8,800 square feet worth.
It likely won't be enough.
Everyone wants a slice of the space for courtrooms, files, a domestic violence room, offices and rooms for jurors to deliberate. And this old building is an unlikely candidate for expansion, because of its historic nature and its perch atop Mount Misery.
With all that in mind, county and court officials are embarking on yet another study to determine what their needs are and just how well this 19th-century building can accommodate the 21st century.
The last study, in 1994, came up with a master plan that said, "The Howard County Courthouse, in its present configuration, has reached the limits of its capacity to handle judicial functions."
It also came up with a list of recommendations for moving some departments out, allowing others needed breathing room -- room the consultants said would forestall the need for a new courthouse until at least 2010.
Although the recommendations contained in the 1994 study are 6 years old, the document provides information about the needs of the court system and a base for the new study, which is being done by the same company, Architectural Research Collaborative of Alexandria, Va., said John Shatto, Circuit Court administrator.
No imminent fix
"The early study was critically important for setting the road map for what we're doing," he said.
Still, any fix is months away. By the time a study is completed, the state's attorney's office moves to its new digs and the newly vacated space is renovated, it could be 2002.
That means the grand jury, which usually hears testimony and deliberates in the basement courtroom, will continue to be shuffled around when other matters take up that space.
It means Clerk of the Circuit Court Margaret D. Rappaport's staff will have to continue cramming themselves, and an ever-increasing load of paperwork, into a space that is too small. Rappaport said she received grant authorization for the creation of a room for victims of domestic violence. Word of the grant came three years ago, she said, but she has no space for the room.
It means a master and courthouse social workers will have to continue to work off site.
And it means that Sheriff Charles M. Cave's operations staff will still work out of the old jail across from the courthouse.
Some say it might be time to move on.
The old courthouse building could be retired, they say, and put to a less paper-heavy use.
"It's a beautiful building," Rappaport said. "It's not sufficient and efficient for what it's used for now because we outgrew it."
If the option became reality, the Howard County Historical Society would be more than willing to take the building off the county's hands and turn it into a museum, said Charles M. Coles Jr., an Orphans Court judge and president of the historical society.
But building a new courthouse can seem like building an empire. Court administrators have spent careers cultivating support for new structures, meaning the process can take a decade or more.
Shatto said that at least in the short term, a new building is not "economically feasible." Instead, he points to the 1994 study, which suggests a precinct concept: moving departments to surrounding buildings to create space.
Awkward but manageable
Working in a historic building, built before victim witness areas were needed and when the county was much smaller, can be awkward, he said.
Still, "can we do our jobs in this building? Yes," he said.
But the wish lists are lengthy. Court officials say they need a new jury courtroom (a minimum of 1,600 square feet, according to the 1994 study), plus additional jury and hearing rooms, just to accommodate the judicial staff and current needs. That doesn't take into account the need for a sixth judge, perhaps in a few years, and the court and office space that will be required to accommodate the new position.
Rappaport's wish list includes at least 2,600 square feet of space just to fill the immediate needs of her office -- ever-increasing filings, new staff and the domestic violence room.
Register of Wills Kay K. Hartleb said hers is probably the least crowded of the offices, although she could use space for growth. Cave would like to get his deputies and staff out of the dismal and cramped conditions in the historic jail, where employees have to share phones and work space in a poorly ventilated structure.
What will go into the 8,800-square-foot space that States Attorney Marna L. McLendon and her staff will soon vacate remains unknown, said Administrative Judge Raymond J. Kane. "We have to be told what we can do with that space," both in the short term and in the future, he said. "Obviously, the existing structures ability to address long-term needs is somewhat limited."