'90s disorder in the court holds repercussions for relocation plan

Courthouse must stay in Catonsville, Md. law says

December 29, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

With the University of Maryland, Baltimore County eager to snatch up its land, the little Catonsville District Court on Walker Avenue is looking for somewhere else to go, court officials say.

But before it can find a bigger building and relocate from the shadows of newly built UMBC dorms, the court must first face Baltimore County history.

It is a story of bruised community egos and dashed local hopes, of neighborhoods' failed efforts to cling to their court buildings.

It is one that makes some local politicians ready to fight any movement of the courthouse away from Catonsville - regardless of court officials' desires to expand and the college's wish for more land.

Judge James N. Vaughan, the chief judge of the District Court, is well aware of the past and the battles fought in the county over district courts.

It is a state law that was altered during those battles, requiring a courthouse in Catonsville, that Vaughan worries may keep him from finding the best new site.

"We are handicapped by the need to stay in Catonsville," he said. "The law says courts must be in Essex, Towson and Catonsville."

District courts are the courts where most cases end up. They handle traffic tickets and landlord-tenant complaints, as well as some criminal and civil cases.

At one time, there were five in the county - in Dundalk, Owings Mills, Towson, Catonsville and Essex.

But in the early 1990s, Judge Robert F. Sweeney, then the chief judge of the District Court, started a push to close two. He said the Dundalk and Owings Mills courts, which were operating in rented facilities, needlessly cost the court system hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In 1992, he helped persuade some lawmakers to make a last-minute change to the state budget that reduced the number of Baltimore County district courthouses to three.

When area legislators realized what had happened, there was an uproar.

`A big battle'

"It was a big battle, I will tell you that," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who fought to save the Owings Mills court.

Politicians argued that closing district courts in their communities would cost jobs and hurt the local economy. They said their constituents would be inconvenienced by having to travel to faraway courts.

Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. and others on the east side maintained that if the Dundalk court closed, revitalization efforts would suffer.

"It was in the core of the Dundalk area there," Stone recalled. "We kept it open for as long as we possibly could. But it finally closed."

Despite extensions and other attempts to keep the courts open, the Dundalk and Owings Mills district courts closed in 1999. At the same time, lawmakers changed state law to require courts in Towson, Essex and Catonsville.

That seemed to be the end of the district court issue. Until now.

UMBC is pushing at the edges of the Catonsville court property. New dorms encircle the court building, and signs on the court parking lot warn students against leaving their cars there.

"Years ago, before anyone anticipated that UMBC was going to expand as it has, the powers that be thought it would be a good place to put a court," said Vaughan, the judge.

The land where the court sits was originally part of the college campus, but was taken back by the state in 1966, said Lisa Akchin, a spokeswoman for the college.

Akchin said that UMBC has no "active" plans to take the land, but added that it would "welcome" the chance to expand into the court property.

Vaughan said the state Department of General Services is looking for a new courthouse location on the west side. He would like to move if the perfect site can be found, he said. It would give everyone involved more flexibility if legislators changed the law to allow a court anywhere in the area, not just in Catonsville, he said. But given the history of the district court debate, any potential changes make some local politicians nervous.

Ready to fight

Baltimore County Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, said he would fight any move to take the court out of Catonsville.

"It's prestige," he said. "I think having the court here is extremely important."

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