In a compromise with Baltimore housing officials, Maryland's top judges have agreed to assign a judge full time to city housing issues for six months to see if those cases can regularly fill a court docket.
District Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey, who has been handling city housing cases part time since November, will devote all of her time to such cases during the six-month pilot when it starts April 1, said Judge Mary Ellen T. Rinehardt, administrative judge for the city's District Court.
In addition, Maryland Chief Judge Robert M. Bell has agreed to allocate up to $80,000 of unused court renovation money to construct another courtroom on the third floor of the District Court Civil Building in downtown Baltimore.
That courtroom, which is expected to be completed by April 1, likely would be used by retired judges working part time to help prevent a backlog of cases involving other issues, the judges said.
"We were told that there is a need to handle housing court problems," Bell said. "What we have tried to do is work with the city to make sure housing cases are heard. Certainly they are going to get more court time."
The judges were responding to a proposal by Daniel P. Henson III, the city housing commissioner, to add two judgeships in Baltimore strictly to hear housing cases and to create a separate city housing court.
Henson hailed the judges' decision as a good compromise that would speed settlement of landlord-tenant disputes and punishment of property owners who refuse to repair dilapidated or vacant buildings.
"I think that what is being proposed here is exactly the kind of response we needed," Henson said. "It is totally satisfactory."
But members of the city's Senate delegation said yesterday that six-month experiment with a housing judge was inadequate, and the lawmakers want to meet with Bell and other court officials on the matter.
Democratic Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, chairman of the delegation, said the city has plenty of political muscle to flex during discussions with Bell.
"We have the majority leader of the Senate and the chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee," McFadden said, referring to two prominent city lawmakers. "We have the atomic weapons."
In addition to the housing court proposal, city officials are pushing three bills in Annapolis that would restrict the ability of property owners to appeal fines and contempt orders; allow the use of citations for minor housing offenses; and set up an administrative board to resolve nuisance complaints.
Bell has supported those bills, and they appear to have $l widespread support in the legislature.
But during hearings before state lawmakers this month, Bell argued against the request for the two new judges and a separate housing court -- in part because the state judiciary is requesting six new judges for courts in other parts of Maryland where he sees a greater need.
Bell also said at the time that the judiciary did not want to create a specific housing court, which would limit how judges were used.
Moreover, he and other judges said there hadn't been enough city housing cases to warrant the separate court.
City officials said the court previously had limited the number of housing cases that could be sent to the court at one time, but they insist a need exists.
Pub Date: 2/21/97