Court library short of funding

Circuit judges ask commissioners to aid update of lawbooks

April 17, 2001|By Jamie Manfuso | Jamie Manfuso,SUN STAFF

Legal researchers browsing the shelves of Carroll's Circuit Court law library might be disheartened by what they see. White slips posted around the stacks flag about 60 lawbooks that have not been updated for more than three years.

"You can't go into our library and do the most up-to-date research," said retired Circuit Judge Francis M. Arnold.

Used frequently by court clerks, lawyers, students, and people representing themselves, the law library's volumes will likely remain out-of-date unless court officials find a way to pay for what needs updating - as much as $60,000 annually.

With that in mind, court officials have asked Carroll County commissioners for help this budget season. But some court officials have been told privately that no additional money will be available for the library.

The library gets its funding almost entirely from two sources - attorney appearance fees and court fines. Appearance fees, 100 percent of which go to the law library, contribute $20,000 or more a year.

But the amount of fines that goes to the library has steadily dropped in recent years because of the changing nature of the court's caseload.

Following a statute that is more than 30 years old, the court and the county split the fines. Money goes equally into Carroll's general fund and the law library.

From 1993 to 2000, the library's share of the fines has dropped by almost $30,000, from $51,000 in 1993 to $21,300 in 2000. The library's budget has fallen in that time, from $76,100 to $41,300.

"The nature of our criminal cases are drug related with long confinements," Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. told commissioners at a budget hearing early this month. "We are not likely to get fines."

Court administrator Bobbie Erb said the Circuit Court also is getting fewer appeals from District Court and fewer requests for jury trials, both of which could increase its fine revenue. "More of the fineable cases are remaining in District Court," she said.

The soaring costs of lawbooks has added to the library's troubles. By some accounts, lawbooks double in price every five years.

At the budget hearing, Circuit Court judges asked the commissioners to dedicate all the fine money for upgrades to the law library.

Officials said the $60,000 a year that the arrangement would provide would be enough to help the library catch up on its subscriptions and maintain them annually.

The Carroll County Bar Association unanimously supports the judges' proposal, said Charles "Mike" Preston, a Westminster attorney.

"While the library is important to the court and lawyers and the public who use it, its significance goes above and beyond," Preston said. "There would still be litigation and cases would still be tried, if we couldn't do the research. But books are dangerously useless without supplements. It is so important to keep updated. We want insurance that what we are looking at is fresh."

Despite support from the bar association, court officials were told last week that their request would be denied. The commissioners' recommendations won't be official until they release their budget Thursday. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled May 3.

If court officials cannot offer a way to finance the library, the lawbooks will remain trapped in 1998. Some of the materials are available on CD-ROM or via the Internet, but many are only in paper form.

"This is the only educational resource that we have to offer here in Carroll County for legal information," said law librarian Florence Green.

Maryland lawbooks will remain up-to-date, but other books will not. For instance, the popular Decennial Digest, containing case law from around the country, and the Supreme Court Digest have not received supplements since 1998.

That's a problem for Donna Engle, a former newspaper reporter and second-year University of Maryland law student who was using the library Thursday. The Westminster resident said she once had to use the law library on UM's Baltimore campus to get up-to-date case law from Decennial Digest on a housing issue.

It will also be a problem for the increasing number of people representing themselves in cases such as child custody, wills, and tenant law who need proper legal forms, Green said.

"When people come in and say, `I'm looking for a form,' I have to tell them to be cautious because those books have not been updated since 1998," she said.

Sun staff writer Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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