Will the Montgomery County District Court--all nine black-robed judges, plus clerks and files--be tossed out onto the street?
The court's lease on its rented Shady Grove headquarters expires Dec. 31, and, thus far, it has found nowhere to go. Chief Judge Robert F. Sweeney concedes he is faced with "very serious dilemmas."
Workers in the county's District Court, where about 170,000 minor civil, criminal and motor-vehicle cases and more than 3,000 juvenile cases are filed each year, were planning to move into the old county courthouse in Rockville. The Circuit Court abandoned the building (several months behind schedule) for a sparkling new Judicial Center two years ago.
Then a survey showed that far more renovation work, including extensive roof repairs, heating and mechanical work and the removal of asbestos, was needed than officials had suspected. County facilities director Thomas S. Abraham said the building won't be ready until January 1985 at the earliest.
The classic county courthouse-style building, with broad steps, tall pillars and a bell tower, now stands deserted. "Moved" signs are taped to the doors, and some sections are cordoned off with string. Inside, several rooms are used for storage. The rest is empty.
Abraham said the county will not spend a penny on renovations until a leasing agreement has been worked out between the county government, which owns the building, and the state government, which runs the District Court. Negotiations have been slow. The transfer plan was first devised eight years ago, and work on the lease itself began when the Circuit Court moved out.
County leasing chief Gloria Wingo said she anticipates county negotiations will be completed within two months. The county probably will end up contributing about $1.6 million of an estimated $3.6 million in renovation costs, with the state paying the rest; the state will then repay the county, with interest, over a 10-year period, Wingo said.
Last week, Sweeney, who heads all of Maryland's district courts, and officials from the state's General Services Administration met with officials from the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, which manages the Shady Grove building.
Sweeney said he asked if the lease could be extended, but the owners seemed anxious to have the District Court move out. The reason, Sweeney said, appeared to be that the District Court does not rent all the space in the large two-story building, and nobody else wants to share the building with the court.
No decisions were made, Sweeney said, and more meetings are planned. Richard Weidel of Equitable Life said the lease "is just up in the air, as it's always been. . . . There's nothing been determined."
So after last week's meeting court workers were dispatched to scout out vacant buildings in the county that might be rented until the courthouse is ready.
At the same time, the District Court is hoping to find some other state agency that needs space in the area to rent the unused portion of the Shady Grove building. If nothing else works out, Sweeney said, the court could move into the courthouse and try to work amid the debris of construction.
Sweeney said the state could have built a new courthouse more quickly than it could fix up the old one.
Those involved have done their best, he said, "but we've had too many cooks in it. . . . If the county had gone ahead without any reference to the state, it would have been done by now. If the state had gone ahead without the county, it would have been done by now, too."
But no matter when the courthouse is ready, Montgomery County residents probably will have the finest District Court building in the state. "The state could have built a new building," Sweeney said, "but it couldn't have built a building like that."
Most district courts in the state are squirreled away in the cellars, garrets and back rooms of buildings dominated by circuit courts. The Montgomery County District Court and its predecessor, the People's Court, shared a corner of the old county courthouse in Rockville until 1969, when it moved to the low-slung office building on Shady Grove Road.
When renovations are completed, the District Court will move back to the old courthouse as sole master. "I have never understood, quite frankly, why the Circuit Court moved out," Sweeney said.