Spat roils city court process


Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway wants a new city jury commissioner.

In a four-page letter sent recently to Circuit Court judges, Conaway accuses the commissioner of "orchestrating a vindictive and deceptive abuse of the grand jury process" and asks no fewer than three times that Nancy M. Dennis be terminated.

The letter follows a grand jury report that says Conaway's employees "intercepted" the grand jury's supplies and complains that the jury commissioner "cannot function efficiently in such an environment."

Conaway returned fire by calling Dennis "a recalcitrant and insubordinate employee" in his letter and saying that she "spoon-fed" lies to the grand jury about his office. In an interview yesterday, Dennis said, "That's totally out of the scope of anything I would do."

The spat highlights what judges and other courthouse employees say is the impractical and confusing relationship between the clerk's office and the jury commissioner's office: Dennis is hired and supervised by the judges, but other employees in the commissioner's office are hired by Conaway. And Conaway controls Dennis' budget.

That complicated setup, used by Circuit Courts throughout Maryland, might be about to end.

Last month, the Conference of Circuit Court Judges approved a change in the state Circuit Court plan that would sever the relationship between clerk's offices and jury commissioners. Salaries for all jury commissioner employees, such as Dennis, would be paid by the state.

The change in plan must be approved by the judiciary and the resulting budget adjustments approved by the General Assembly. The new arrangement could be in place in July, the start of the new fiscal year.

Baltimore Circuit Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland was an advocate for the change.

"Juries are intertwined with the courts, not really with the clerk's office," she said. "The jury office is not a clerical function."

Judge John C. Themelis, who works closely with Dennis as the judge in charge of petit jurors, said the current situation "is designed to generate friction and controversy."

"It's not fair to Mr. Conaway to have to finance the jury commissioner's office but yet have no control over the supervisor," he said. "And it's not fair to Ms. Dennis, either."

Dennis began as jury commissioner last fall, after she was selected by the Circuit Court judges. Conaway complained in his letter that he should have been the one to do the hiring.

Holland said the bench is "very satisfied by her work." Dennis said she feels that she's doing a good job because she hears frequently from jurors who say things seem to be running more smoothly this year.

Conaway, a fixture in the criminal justice system and a political mainstay who ran for mayor on the campaign "I BELIEVE we've been DECEIVED," frequently pipes up at public meetings to criticize courthouse working conditions, police policies and other aspects of the criminal justice system.

But Holland said she hadn't heard a peep from Conaway regarding Dennis until she read his letter, which she described as "distressing."

Conaway said he and Dennis haven't spoken in months. He called their relationship "a crazy, unworkable situation."

Themelis believes that tensions between Conaway and Dennis might have been long simmering because Conaway "is a perfectionist" and Dennis "is a hard worker, but she is still in a learning curve."

The dispute came to a boil with the release of the grand jury report and Conaway's letter responding to it, which he sent out Friday.

Conaway said he believes that Dennis steered the grand jury to write a report that criticizes his office because she is angry at him for refusing to give her $12,000 for new office furniture for herself.

Dennis said she hasn't done anything improper in her year as jury commissioner and said she would strive to get along with Conaway until the system changes.

"I'm very conscientious about the work that I do," she said. "It's unfortunate that he views things the way that he does."

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