Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday that the state government, not Prince George's County, must pay for providing security at Prince George's County District Court, handing County Executive Wayne K. Curry a victory in a bitter funding dispute with the sheriff's office.

But the unanimous decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals ultimately may mean that the sheriff's department, whose budget has been cut drastically by Curry (D) in recent years, actually will receive more money.

The sheriff's department has many duties in addition to court security. Responding to the court's ruling, Sheriff Alonzo D. Black said in a statement that "we . . . hope that we can now move to restore the appropriate levels of services to this community that have been interrupted" as a result of having to supply court security "without funding" for it.

"We will be working in partnership with all of the concerned parties to pursue the highest level of services for criminal warrants, domestic violence and our child support initiatives," Black said.

Prince George's County is the only jurisdiction in the state in which the sheriff's department is expected to provide security for the District Court and receives no reimbursement for the services. The state attorney general previously has issued two opinions supporting that position.

"We agree with Prince George's County that, under the applicable statutes, the cost of providing District Court security should ultimately be borne by the state. Consequently, the state is statutorily obliged to reimburse Prince George's County for the cost of security for the District Court," Judge John C. Eldridge wrote for the full panel.

Eldridge noted that the state had argued that providing security for the District Court was a "law enforcement" function, not a court function.

"The costs of providing security to any enterprise, where security is deemed reasonably necessary or appropriate, is part of the `cost of maintenance, operation and administration' of the enterprise. It borders upon the frivolous to argue otherwise," Eldridge wrote.

In recent months, courthouse security in Prince George's has received increased scrutiny after several incidents erupted inside Circuit Court courtrooms. However, officials said they epitomized problems with courthouse security overall.

"If there are concerns about courthouse security, this opinion clearly places that issue before the state now," said Associate County Attorney Jay Creech.

"Now it's a matter for the governor and the state court system," said Leonard Lucchi, Curry's director of legislative affairs. "We're pleased that it's a favorable decision, and we're pleased that it's over."

Details of how many deputies should be assigned to the District Court and at what cost will be hammered out by state court officials, with input from the sheriff's department, said Associate Attorney General Larry Fletcher Hill. The opinion said the state attorney general's office and the office of the county attorney also could weigh in on the matter.

The tangled legal battle began with a management corporation that operates residential apartments suing the county and then-Sheriff James V. Aluisi, alleging that the sheriff's office failed to serve court papers in landlord-tenant disputes involving the corporation.

The management corporation eventually dropped its complaint, but not before Aluisi, in answering that suit, filed a lawsuit against the county, alleging that Curry had slashed the sheriff's budget too far.

Curry then countersued Aluisi, alleging waste and mismanagement and asking the courts to put the sheriff's office under the control of a receiver. The county also filed a suit against the State of Maryland, arguing that many of the courthouse security duties Aluisi said he was unable to perform actually are the responsibility of the state to fund.

In his opinion, Eldridge noted that in Baltimore and most counties, security in District Court is provided by bailiffs. Some of the bailiffs are District Court employees, most are contracted through security firms, but all are paid by the state, Eldridge wrote.

Some District Court facilities are in multi-service buildings that house other state agencies; in those cases, security is provided by employees of the state Department of General Services, Eldridge wrote.

Eldridge cited the history of Maryland courts: "One of the principal features of the District Court from its inception was that the costs of the court should be borne entirely by the state."

The opinion also said that the serving of court papers in landlord-tenant disputes, in civil matters and in criminal summons is a duty of the sheriff.

Sheriff's departments charge $35 -- an amount set by the state legislature -- for serving summonses and subpoenas.

If the costs of providing such services exceeds the amount of the fees authorized, the county has to bear the additional cost, Eldridge said.