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A building that would do justice to city's needs


Right now it's just a downtown parking lot, but this is where Baltimore Circuit Judge Marcella A. Holland hopes to build her dream courthouse.

Standing at the site, she can picture it: a round, ultramodern building with two dozen courtrooms and a network of hallways that keep defendants, judges and jurors separated from the public.

Jurors would lounge in the building's airy jury room, replete with pay phones, computers and a quiet area, and when it came time for them to hear a trial they'd view evidence up close on individual television monitors affixed to their courtroom chairs.

The dream courthouse, though a clear vision in Holland's mind and a clear need to many who work in the aging buildings on Calvert Street, is far from a reality. It would no doubt cost more than $100 million, and although it would be a public building, a new courthouse doesn't draw the same kind of support as, say, a new school.

But skepticism about the project doesn't stop Holland, the Circuit Court's administrative judge, from pushing forward.

"My new mantra is, I believe that schools are important, but a courthouse should be a close second," she said. "We have children and elderly people coming into the courthouse every day, and it's just not a safe place."

Baltimore Circuit Court functions are divided between two buildings: Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse on the west side of Calvert Street and Courthouse East just across from it. Mitchell is 105 years old; its slightly younger companion, Courthouse East, was built 73 years ago as a post office.

Holland says the buildings can no longer be safely altered to accommodate the ever-growing workload of a court system that saw more than 41,000 criminal cases last fiscal year.

Instead, Holland wants to convert Courthouse East into an office building, restore Mitchell to its original grandeur and use it as a smaller courthouse that handles civil and family cases, and - most ambitiously - construct a new courthouse on a parking lot on Guilford Avenue and Fayette Street, adjacent to the historic Munsey Building.

Holland has pitched her idea to anyone who will listen, from the City Council to the governor's office. She said her goal is simply "to get on somebody's five-year capital budget plan."

"It's too huge a project for either the city or the state to take on alone," Holland says. Might she suggest that they work together? Perhaps, she offers, the city could pay for a third of the project and the state could chip in the other two-thirds.

Mayor Martin O'Malley's spokeswoman said recently that Holland is seeking money that the city just doesn't have. Some City Council members, such as Belinda Conaway - whose father, Frank M. Conaway, works in Courthouse East as the Circuit Court clerk - and Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, have said they will push the city to commit at least the money for planning.

Meanwhile, Holland can dream.

When she talks about her ideal courthouse, the judge's eyes light up like a child who's telling Santa about the doll she must have for Christmas.

"This is my wish list," she says, sketching a round building in the air with her hands.

Courtrooms would be at the heart of the building, and at least four circulation patterns - for jurors, defendants, judges and the public - would feed into them.

"The idea," Holland says, " is that none of the players see each other until everyone gets to the courtroom."

One set of rooms and hallways would be designated for jurors. The jury room would have "some of the comforts of home," Holland says. When they were needed in court, jurors would use their own hallways so that they wouldn't need to worry about encountering angry or pushy family members who may try to influence them.

Defendants would be ferried into the building through a secure garage, where vans would park and unload them. They'd be brought up to court in their own elevators - no more traipsing through public hallways in shackles and chains.

Prosecution witnesses would be kept in one area and defense witnesses in another. Now, witnesses usually wait in the hallways, like students banished from a classroom for bad behavior.

Like the defendants, judges would have their own secure garage and set of elevators to bring them directly to their courtrooms. Members of the public would use the fourth circulation pattern.

Now peek inside one of the 24 imaginary courtrooms. They're huge, first of all. The ones in Mitchell and Courthouse East range from closet-size (some, in fact, are fashioned out of old offices and closets) to somewhat large - but still nowhere big enough to handle the hundred-person jury pool needed for complex murder trials.

In this new building, jurors sit in comfortable chairs and view evidence on individual television monitors so that they don't have to handle guns, drugs, bloody clothing and the like. The courtrooms are outfitted with a sound loop so that language interpreters can work completely behind the scenes - as they do at the United Nations.

Holland took up the cause for a new courthouse from her predecessor, Judge Ellen M. Heller, who retired in December 2003. Heller said she - and her predecessor, Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan - realized Mitchell and Courthouse East cannot possibly be retrofitted any more than they have been.

"Both buildings are very deficient," Heller says, "whether one is talking about safety, size, air systems or security."

Heller's efforts, including letters to and meetings with state legislators, resulted in a $400,000 needs assessment that determined there simply is no economically feasible way to make either of the existing courthouses suitable for criminal cases.

The study, by Richter Cornbrooks Gribble Inc. architects and Ricci Greene Associates, proposed eight locations for a courthouse, including Holland's preferred site near the Munsey Building.

If it were built on that land, according to the study, the courthouse would need to be about 15 stories and would encompass 40,100 square feet. The researchers ranked this the preferred site, noting proximity to the other courthouses and to mass transit.

Other suggested locations include Guilford and Saratoga Street, Guilford and Lexington Street, the Fallsway between Pleasant and Gay streets (across from the Juvenile Justice Center) and the Fallsway between Madison and Monument streets.

A new courthouse, Holland says, could even reshape the city's besieged criminal justice system. "If people respect the courthouse," she says, "maybe they'll respect the system, too."


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