House yanks county funding
A conference room is at the heart of a donnybrook that's dragged in County Council, the Clerk of Court, the Probate Court, the state's Chief Justice and now the county legislative delegation.
Rep. Jenny Horne said Wednesday she proposed and the House adopted a budget amendment to take $30,000 away from Dorchester County's local government fund and give the money directly to the clerk.
Clerk Cheryl Graham could then use the money to create a space for new At-Large Circuit Court Judge Maite Murphy as Graham sees fit.
“If county council doesn't want to obey the law, we as the delegation will make sure the court system continues to operate,” Horne said, referencing an order from Chief Justice Jean Toal ordering council to adhere to Graham's plans for the courthouse.
Council, however, believes the law is on its side.
“The council has the right to do the renovations to the courthouse as they deem necessary,” Councilman George Bailey said Wednesday.
Everyone agrees Murphy, who takes office July 1, needs space.
And everyone agrees the clerk designates space within the courthouse.
But Graham, as well as Chief Justice Jean Toal, believes “designating space” includes determining where new walls should be built or doors installed.
Council, and Probate Court Judge Mary Blunt's attorney John Moylan, believes council makes physical alterations, which the clerk would then designate.
Graham said she came up with her proposal after walking through the space with Bailey and Councilman David Chinnis and speaking with Murphy about her needs.
Her plan would still leave plenty of space for Probate Court to operate, she said, and the plan isn't set in stone forever.
Space could be redesignated in the future as needs change, she said.
Graham's plan included a reception area, judge's chambers, supply area, law clerk office and conference room.
She made her decision about where to place a key wall between the Probate Court and Circuit Court based on existing lighting, so workers wouldn't have to move electrical, she said.
The conference room is important to the new circuit court judge because “all court cases aren't settled in the courtroom,” Graham said.
Blunt, on the other hand, has argued the space is important to Probate Court because her court acts as a judicial court, administrative body and as its own clerk, storing all its records on-site.
Because families are dealing with sensitive issues like guardianships and mental illness commitments, she frequently meets with people in a conference room rather than the courtroom, she said.
Council came up with its own plan after deciding the first proposal took too much space from Probate Court and created too much space for a circuit court judge who would be spending most of her time in other counties.
It was about to amend that plan, based on a change proposed by Blunt that would save a few thousand dollars, when Toal issued an order that council use the $12,000 originally earmarked and follow Graham's directions.
Horne's amendment took $30,000 from the county because the county would have done the job in-house, using about $18,000 in labor and materials.
Bailey said he's tried to work with everyone involved and has asked “that we sit down as grownup adults, looking at one another, and resolve this.”
He wasn't sure Wednesday if such a meeting would happen.
“This whole thing is just over one room, a conference room,” he said. “I'm still hoping and praying that we can still sit down, work out this one little conference room.”
But Horne said the time for talking is over.
“They're not going to play that game anymore,” she said.
If the county fixes this, the House will restore its funding, she said.
The lack of a space for Murphy “affects the administration of justice,” Horne said. Murphy needs a space to work; every other at-large judge has a chambers, Horne said.
Toal's order should be the end of the matter, Horne said.
“When she issues an order, it's the law. It's the law of the land. … This is not a suggestion. It's not a request. It's an order from the Supreme Court,” Horne said.
Furthermore, there's no higher court to appeal to, she said.
Murphy did not respond to messages left at her office Tuesday and Wednesday.
Council Chairman Bill Hearn called a special meeting of council for 9:15 a.m. Friday to deal with the issue.