Solving the case of the roving judges

Not enough courtrooms are available to handle caseload of all the jurists

March 04, 2007|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,[sun reporter]

After jurors filed into a room behind the third-floor courtroom Thursday to begin deliberations in an assault case, Judge William C. Mulford II took his books and headed down a back staircase to his chambers one flight down.

As the 11th judge in a 10-courtroom courthouse, he is a nomad of sorts, navigating the rabbit warren of hidden corridors and stairwells in the Anne Arundel County Courthouse, hearing cases wherever a courtroom is available.

Since his job was created 14 months ago, Mulford has joined the other sitting judges and a parade of retired judges in a game of musical courtrooms that has sometimes forced hearings to be delayed for lack of a place to hold them.

"It's a real problem. We've been struggling on many occasions to get a courtroom," said Court Administrator Robert G. Wallace.

To alleviate the space crunch, court officials are asking the county to complete an 11th courtroom during the fiscal year that starts in July.

Wallace estimated that it would cost $600,000 to $800,000 to build a courtroom, with at least $100,000 of that going for electronics. Courtrooms are outfitted with an internal recording and security systems, a network for bail hearings from the jail, video monitors and more.

The budget request is part of a $1.2 million capital request to build offices for drug and family counselors, who are scattered around the building, and build other office space in the courthouse.

Rhonda Wardlow, spokeswoman for County Executive John R. Leopold, said the request will be considered in the "very full plate of requests" in the coming budget season. Leopold has two months of back-to-back budget meetings and will send his budget proposal to the County Council the first week of May, she said.

If built, the new courtroom would go on the second floor in a children's waiting area that has been little used.

The courthouse, tucked into a hill along Church Circle, was completed in 1999 to include about 260,000 square feet of floor space, leaving room to grow for decades.

The county received approval to add an 11th judge in late 2005, and Mulford joined the bench in January 2006.

At the same time, the retired judges returning to pick up overflow work have surpassed the equivalent of one full-time judge, Wallace said.

Theoretically, with one of the 11 judges always the chambers judge - the judge doing desk work in an office - there should be a courtroom available. A second courtroom would probably be open because one judge would be on vacation or out sick.

But it has not always worked out that way.

Last week, every one of the 10 courtrooms was in use.

Eight judges were hearing matters in their own courtrooms. The ninth courtroom, that of the chambers judge was the site of a malpractice trial being conducted by a retired judge.

The only reason the 10th courtroom was open for Mulford to hear the criminal trial was that the judge who usually occupies it was out sick.

"I could care less walking two flights up, using somebody's courtroom," Mulford said.

But, he added, "People should not have to wait to get their cases tried."

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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