Courthouse space divides council, judiciary

  • Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The elevation of a local judge to the circuit court is leading to a tussle over office space in the county courthouse.
After Monday’s County Council meeting, Councilman David Chinnis said he was “offended” by the most recent floorplan, though he declined to name the source of the drawing.
He said the drawing he’d seen took space from the probate court and other offices and created a single office about 75 percent of the size of the offices currently used by two judges.
He wouldn’t say for whom that new space was earmarked.
Carving out additional space became necessary after the General Assembly elected Master-in-Equity Maite Murphy to an at-large circuit court judgeship.
The county is obligated to provide space for Murphy, though she will hear cases throughout the state.
Council itself doesn’t agree on whose project this is: Chinnis thinks his planning, development and building committee should take the lead, while Councilman George Bailey said his public safety, health and human services is in charge of the courthouse.
But, Bailey told Probate Court Judge Mary Blunt in a testy exchange, council doesn’t assign space to judges; the clerk of court does.
Council does allocate funding for improvements to the courthouse, however.
Blunt appeared to ask council that she have the opportunity to respond publicly to any proposed changes before they’re decided.
She said she has a responsibility to protect the court, which handles probate, emergency commitments, guardianships and marriage licenses.
The senior population is expected to double between 2000 and 2030, she said, and the booming demographics of Dorchester County mean more people use probate court every year.
“We are a highly used, high-traffic public service office,” she said.
She should have addressed her concerns to Clerk of Court Cheryl Graham, Bailey said.
Bailey said he and Chinnis spent more than three hours touring the courthouse. The solicitor, sheriff and public defender have all agreed to work with the county in creating new space, he said.
However, he warned, the county will not be adding on to the courthouse.
Blunt said she’s tried unsuccessfully to speak with the clerk.
“I don’t want to air dirty laundry or go into a lot of detail,” she said.
She said she simply wanted to remind council of her office’s duties and how crucial its space is.
Blunt later spoke to council during an executive session to receive legal advice about providing courthouse space for judges.
After the meeting, Chinnis said the debate should be about the needs of each office but is turning into a personality conflict.
When the courthouse was built, planners consulted with judges and the clerk of court to determine space needs.
The courthouse opened in 2009 and was dedicated in 2011.
Murphy was out of the country and unable to comment Monday evening.

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