Finishing touches being put on new chambers as Circuit Court gets ready to add to its ranks

Building a home for judge No. 11


Wads of yellow batting are piled chest-high by an upended wood desk. Nearby, workers are screwing Sheetrock into steel framing. Sometime before the place's new occupant arrives, the gray shop vacuum shaped like R2-D2 will leave.

Down a secure hallway on the second floor of the Anne Arundel County Court House, behind a cherry wood door, workers are crafting new digs for a yet-unnamed 11th judge of the Circuit Court.

Until a few weeks ago, this area was a storage room, tucked away from public view. But soon, the mess will be replaced by a bland jury deliberation room and a tony judge's chambers.

Meanwhile, behind closed doors elsewhere, the process to select the new judge is under way, with the Judicial Nominating Commission interviewing the dozen lawyers who want to sit in that office.

Tomorrow, the commission is scheduled to winnow the names to a few from which the governor must make the appointment to the fifth-largest bench in the state. Speculation in legal circles has shifted from who applied for the job last month to who might win a coveted spot on the short list. Though no one knows when the judge will be named, court plans call for construction of the chambers to be completed soon after the short list is out.

What the new judge will not have is a jury courtroom to call home. The other 10 do, and the court administrator's and administrative judge's view is that they can share. Retired judges who regularly return to work have been given small chambers, and they use whatever courtroom is available and nearby conference rooms.

"Do you know what it costs to build a courtroom? It's almost $1 million to build a courtroom," said Court Administrator Robert G. Wallace. "That's one of the reasons we are not putting a courtroom in right now."

The ceiling would have to be raised, the walls soundproofed and the floor padded. There's the judge's bench, the recording system, speakers, lighting, the mostly hidden security network, the wiring for electricity and telephones, not to mention the wireless set-up for the hearing-impaired and all the furniture: the witness box, the jury box, lawyers' tables and chairs, the rows of benches.

The cost of building out and outfitting the chambers and deliberation room - the deliberation space also can be used for conferences - is estimated at less than $150,000, with most of the labor done by county employees.

Besides, says Wallace, at least one courtroom is likely to be unused at any given time.

"There is always a chambers judge, and that judge is not in the courtroom," said Administrative Judge Joseph P. Manck.

The building, which has 6 acres of floor space, was constructed with empty areas for expansion. Its layout was designed for two more judges' chambers and three more courtrooms. The District Court down the road also was built with space to expand.

Already, the new Circuit Court judge's chambers is starting to look like an office. On a recent morning, a ceiling was finished in one section. As one county facilities worker held a freshly cut piece of Sheetrock, another screwed it in to create the wall that will enclose the judge's personal office.

It will be the first increase in the number of judges on the county's Circuit Court bench since 1998, when it jumped from nine to 10. Manck said the increase is needed to keep pace with work that includes not only courtroom events but also scheduling and other pretrial conferences.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has two other appointments to the bench in Anne Arundel County to make - for a total of three in a county that last year voted out two Circuit Court judges appointed by his predecessor in favor of two Republican challengers.

In the District Court, a new courtroom was recently outfitted at a cost of about $120,000 to accommodate a ninth judge for the county, which has two courthouses for District Court, court officials said. Last month, the Judicial Nominating Commission forwarded to Ehrlich seven names out of the record 31 lawyers who applied for that position and a vacancy created by retirement.

The new judgeships were part of a request for 13 additional judges for circuit and district courts across the state.

Between the 2000 census and last November, the county added about 32,000 people. They brought their legal crises with them, from traffic tickets and minor tiffs to divorces and major felonies. Requests by the judiciary for more judges are based on a formula that considers the number of cases and how complex they are. Last year, Anne Arundel County was projected to have enough work to occupy three more judges for Circuit Court, but Chief Judge Robert M. Bell asked for one, with retired judges picking up the slack.

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