Facing a court challenge


Judge Diane O. Leasure has never had a courtroom to call her own.

Seven years after she took the bench, she's still sharing space with four other judges in Howard's Circuit Courthouse, grabbing whichever bench happens to be vacant -- and, once, finding herself so turned around that she walked into another judge's trial by mistake.

Still, Leasure, the county's administrative circuit judge, has no complaints.

"I really have never minded being the nomadic judge," she said recently. "It's just that element of surprise."

It's called making do. And here, in the county's historic courthouse -- once the vaunted seat of government, now beset by overcrowding, air-flow problems and health complaints -- it's more common than not.

Every space in the building is occupied. There's no place for attorneys to talk in private with their clients. A fifth courtroom -- squeezed in to justify a fifth judge but woefully inadequate for use in most legal matters -- doubles as a grand jury room.

County offices are planned and new schools built to handle the needs of growing municipalities. Yet, 151 years after the founding of Howard County, the legal community works out of the building where most of the earliest decisions about county life were made. And the once-heralded center of government and social life is showing its age.

Despite renovations in the mid-1980s, the building has become something of a sore spot for a county ranked among the wealthiest in the country -- a too-small, difficult-to-maintain structure.

And while construction of a new, modern courthouse has been a topic of discussion of late, it is by no means a certainty, leaving county officials to patch all manner of problems in a mix-and-match building one official called "one of a kind."

"The long-term solution is still up in the air," said James M. Irvin, the county's director of public works.

Frequently called historic, the building is an oddly assembled mix of the old and the new. Over the years, buildings that date from the mid-19th century have been mortared to stones that are new but look old, or swallowed whole into a renovated structure.

As a result, the courthouse is sprinkled with off-beat features: A stone wall runs through the clerk's office lunch room and bounds the law library. A picturesque porch -- once part of an old house, now the outside of the law library -- sits unused and next to the sally port where sheriff's deputies load and unload prisoners daily.

A walk around the exterior of the building reveals three distinct structures melded into one building: A 1980s addition gives way to the original 1843 structure, which gives away to an old (some say haunted) house, and back again.

All of which makes the structure a challenge, in organization and maintenance, for county employees.

Instead of traditional rooms on traditional floors, the building spans six "levels," accessible by several stairwells.

And instead of the one or two large heating and air-conditioning units that typically would be needed for such a structure, the Howard courthouse has 42 heat pumps to handle its unique design, said Michael A. Giovanniello, chief of the county's bureau of facilities.

The multiple units are necessary in part because the building's historic designation makes a rooftop unit an undesirable option, Irvin said.

"For better or for worse, that's what we have," he said.

Some would -- and do -- say worse.

'They kind of ruined it'

Since the 1980s renovation, the building -- an expanded and gutted version of its former self -- has received more complaints than praise.

"I think they kind of ruined it by changing things up," said Richard J. Kinlein, a one-time Howard state's attorney who has practiced in the building for nearly a half-century.

It wasn't always seen that way.

Once, the stone building, built alongside a jail in the 1840s on land bought from tavern owner Deborah Disney, was key in the governmental life of a new county.

Here the county's history was forged, government and education leaders discussed county business, lectures and performances were held, public hangings were carried out on scaffolding built between the jail and courthouse.

Here also, in the 19th-century Hayden house, which was incorporated into the building during the 1980s and now houses the law library, ghosts were rumored to live: No one could explain the occasional footfall heard on the stairs, the empty swaying chair, the smell of eggs cooking in the morning.

Virtually unchanged during its first century of use, the courthouse has since been expanded three times -- in the late 1930s, early 1960s and mid-1980s. And although there was talk in the late 1950s of moving the county seat to Columbia and turning the courthouse into a museum, the structure remained the center of government life until county offices were moved up the road in the 1970s.

When the District Court building opened in 1982, those offices moved out as well, but the structure was too small for the Circuit Court functions left behind. The result? An $11.3 million renovation that moved the principal entrance from the front of the 1840s building -- with its 1814 cannon and monuments -- to a newly built addition, completely redid the inside and created courtrooms-in-the-round.

'History and tradition'

With the changes went the sense of history that was perceived by visitors, some say.

"There was a sense that here's a courthouse that had a lot of history and tradition," said Senior Assistant State's Attorney Michael Rexroad, who has worked as a Howard prosecutor since 1979. "It felt like a historical courthouse more than it does now."

These days, it is virtually impossible to tell -- at least from the inside -- whether one is in the historic building or the newer expansion.

These days, too, the sense of history seems to pale beside complaints of health problems and overcrowding -- employees blame the courthouse for everything from red eyes to respiratory infections.

(Clerk of the Circuit Court Margaret D. Rappaport called state occupational health inspectors in to check the building in the spring, and county officials recently tested the structure for contaminants.)

Although county officials plan to renovate a portion of the building once the state's attorney's office moves out at the end of the year, some say that won't be enough.

With so many needs and so little space to accommodate them, a new courthouse building is a must, said Sue-Ellen Hantman, president of the Howard County Bar Association.

Compared with other Maryland county courthouses, which have more amenities, "we look like the country cousin," said Hantman.

Still, the structure evokes nostalgia among local historians, such as Joetta Cramm of Ellicott City, who have spent hours doing research in the building.

"The courthouse is like our capital, the capital of Howard County," she said.

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