A Howard judicial event

Judges: Members of the District Court - past and present - gather to mark the opening of the fifth courtroom for the county.

October 18, 2001|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

When the District Court system began operating 30 years ago, Howard County's court consisted of a single judge who presided in a wooden building where rows of seats once collapsed into each other.

"It was adequate for one class of our employees, and that was the termites who came to visit from time to time," retired Judge J. Thomas Nissel, Howard County's first District Court judge, said yesterday as the county's district judges - past and present - gathered to mark the opening of a $1.88 million addition to the courthouse building, which opened in 1982.

The ceremony, held in the newly completed fifth courtroom, was billed as a event to celebrate the 4,878 square-foot addition, but it focused more on the 30-year history of the system and on Nissel.

With all but one of the county's current and former District Court judges - plus three from Carroll County, which shares the judicial district - seated at the bench or just in front, all wearing black robes, speakers lauded Nissel and the court system.

"Opening a courtroom is a big deal," said Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell. "It's a place where people come to receive justice."

The ceremony came a year after construction on the courtroom began - as well as on two additional judges chambers - and two months after work on the addition was completed.

The construction was long-awaited.

The state legislature approved a fifth district judge for the county in late 1998, but the judges had to share four courtrooms for three years and often found themselves traveling to other courthouses across the state to dispense justice.

But no sooner was the construction completed than the county found itself one judge short.

With the elevation of Judge James N. Vaughan to chief of Maryland's District Court system last month, the county has a judicial vacancy.

Court officials said yesterday that it would be several months before a fifth judge is appointed.

Vaughan, who suggested the curved window design in the addition, had just moved into one of the new chambers and had begun to hear cases in the new courtroom when the appointment to the top District Court position changed his plans.

"It was a hike and a half to get there, but it would have been mine," said Vaughan, who served as the district's administrative judge from December 1990 until last month. Now, he works in a state office in Annapolis.

Nissel, who later became a circuit judge in Howard County, said that when he lobbied for a new courthouse in the late 1970s, he asked for four courtrooms, even though there were only three judges at the time.

He said he had expected then that the county would need four judges by 2000.

By the end of the century, there were five.

"The growth is much more than even I anticipated," Nissel said.

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