By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun
6:54 PM EDT, March 22, 2012
The federal government is considering closing dozens of rural court sites across the country, including one that serves Maryland's Eastern Shore — a move that would force people to drive up to 110 miles to the nearest courthouse to have their cases heard.
"It would be a grave inconvenience to litigants to have them come to a federal court in either Baltimore or Greenbelt. It makes no sense," said Deborah K. Chasanow, chief judge of Maryland's U.S. District Courts.
The potential closures, 60 of them spread throughout 29 states, are being considered as a cost-cutting measure within the federal judiciary. They were first reported Thursday by the Associated Press, which obtained a list of the proposed sites. Locations include Arkansas, Texas and Georgia, as well as four other states in the same circuit as Maryland: Virginia, West Virginia, and North and South Carolina.
"The federal judiciary is going through an aggressive cost containment effort because the money Congress has provided for the operating expenses for the courts has been essentially frozen the last three years," David Sellers, a federal court spokesman, said in an email to the Associated Press.
The 60 sites being considered for closure, out of 674 total across the country, do not have a resident judge. Instead, judges based in larger cities travel to these smaller locations as needed, or work there part time, as is the case in Maryland's Salisbury location.
Chasanow said the judiciary leases space from a post office building on Main Street, where a part-time magistrate judge handles roughly 600 cases per year, generally petty offenses, from locations including the eastern district of Virginia, Assateague and Chincoteague islands, the Chesapeake Bay Marshlands, national wildlife refuges and other places. A "recalled" bankruptcy judge also handles about 200 hearings there per year, and Chapter 7 and 13 trustees hold meetings in the courtroom.
It's the only federal court of its size in Maryland. Most cases are handled in the northern and southern divisions located in Baltimore and Greenbelt, respectively
Chasanow sent a letter Thursday to the 4th Circuit Judicial Conference, which oversees federal courts in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina, outlining the importance of the Salisbury location.
"We will resist any suggestion that the Salisbury location is a poor use of federal funds," Chasanow said.
In the documents obtained by the Associated Press, the courthouse facilities that could close were ranked based on a variety of categories, including cost, usage and location. Maryland's was among the top 10 sites being considered for closure. Chasanow could not immediately say what the facility costs but pointed out that the funds go right back to the federal government, so they shouldn't be an issue.
Sellers said a significant portion of those funds is used to pay rent for federal court facilities and pointed out that the court system is at the beginning of the process of reviewing which courthouse facilities could close.
A committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making body for the federal courts, asked the 13 circuit judicial councils in February to review the list and recommend whether to keep the courts without resident judges, Sellers said. They're supposed to get back to the committee by mid-April.
The committee will review the recommendations and forward its report to the Judicial Conference, which could decide whether to close any of the court sites at its September meeting, Sellers said.
The push to close small federal court offices is not new. Sellers said the practice of reviewing court facilities that don't have a resident judge goes back to 1997.
Still, some judges have expressed concerns about the renewed effort due to budget concerns this year.
"We've sent in the information to the judicial counsel, and we very much hope that they will agree to keep the Salisbury location," Chasanow said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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