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Many local courthouses across the nation are unsafe and overcrowded, and people working in them allege that long-neglected facilities are making them sick with everything from respiratory problems to cancer. Flaking asbestos, peeling paint, black mold, a lack of ventilation and violations of modern building and fire codes are among the hazards, according to courthouse personnel, as well as legal actions and workers’ compensation claims filed in several jurisdictions from Boston to Los Angeles. “For a number of years and for a variety of reasons, state and local court budgets have been on a roller coaster,” said Kevin M. Linskey, executive director of the State Justice Institute in Alexandria, Va., established to award grants to improve the quality of justice in state courts. “The first thing to go in uncertain times is general maintenance and repair of buildings,” Linskey said. “Budgeters have been forced to skimp on the upkeep of courthouses . . . to meet payroll and keep the doors open. It’s a problem, and it is going to get bigger.” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) processed 99 requests for health hazard evaluations of courthouses around the country over the past two decades-nearly one third of which were received in the last five years. All but one of the 30 requests since 2001 claimed that poor indoor air quality, ventilation and mold issues were causing allergic symptoms, a range of respiratory problems and cancers. The 30 requests originated from courthouses in 16 states and the District of Columbia, including Philadelphia City Traffic Court; Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach; New York state Supreme and Surrogate’s courts in Jamaica, Queens County; and Arkansas Court of Appeals in Little Rock. Problems exist in courthouses where maintenance budgets have not kept pace with the ravages of time and local conditions such as humidity and earthquakes. Even many newer facilities have been found to contain black mold, court administrators note. The problems are magnified in jurisdictions where tightening budgets have meant deferred maintenance-particularly where county and local governments own courthouses occupied by state judicial employees. ‘Quite deplorable’ Chief Justice Ronald M. George of the California Supreme Court, who has made good on a pledge to visit all 451 county-owned courthouses in California’s 58 counties when he became chief justice in 1996, said that the conditions he found were “quite deplorable in many instances.” The variety of health, safety and security issues made the courts eager for the Legislature to transfer control of court facilities to direct state judicial branch management after the state took over the courts in 2000, George said. The California Legislature is trying to resolve liability issues that have held up the facility transfer, particularly a requirement that the counties bring the buildings up to snuff before transferring them to the state. New legislation would require the counties to retain liability for the buildings for only a prescribed period of time, George said. Unhealthy courthouses can affect everyone who uses the facilities, including judges, jurors and trial lawyers. Headaches, nausea, dizziness, serious respiratory problems, cancers and mesothelioma from asbestos are among the ailments that people claim they have contracted from poorly maintained courthouses. Julie A. Drake, chief of the family violence division in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, believes the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that she was treated for six years ago was caused by working in a courthouse with serious environmental problems. “I really feel that to some extent you take you life and health in your own hands when you take a job in this courthouse,” Drake said. Drake suspects poor ventilation, mold and pigeon droppings-sometimes a foot deep outside her window-may have contributed to her illness. Marilynne Ryan of Ryan & Faenza in Walpole, Mass., a divorce lawyer and one of three attorney plaintiffs in a Massachusetts case over courthouse conditions, said that she regularly spent from one to five days a week in Norfolk Probate and Family Court in Dedham, Mass., before a court ordered it closed. The unhealthy conditions in the courthouse “created an atmosphere that was devoid of any dignity or professionalism, both for lawyers and for clients going through litigation, also of being unsafe,” Ryan said. She added that the morale of court personnel and judges was clearly affected by having to work full time in that building. Chang-Ming Yeh, a Denver-based judicial facility planner with the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., said that “sick building syndrome” frequently comes up when considering new courthouse construction or renovation, but that the center has not kept statistical data on the issue in courthouses or complaints received. A local list of horrors So far, most action on the issue has stayed local. Among other problem hot spots: The 102-year-old Mercer County Criminal Courthouse and its annex in Trenton, N.J., were closed for a day last month after an independent title searcher working in the county clerk’s office was diagnosed with suspected Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia caused by waterborne bacteria. Though the disease could not be traced to the courthouse, the incident highlighted existing chronic air quality, mold and health issues stemming from the aging building, leaking roofs and deferred maintenance, said Peter Daly, spokesman for Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes. Elbert County Courthouse in Kiowa, Colo., is only 21 years old, but it has been closed for most of the last two years due to health concerns related to persistent mold problems caused by a leaky roof and unsealed foundation, said Karen L. Salaz, spokeswoman for the state judiciary. Los Angeles court officials invited the local news media to watch a Los Angeles judge conduct her docket on the steps of the Central Civil West Courthouse last August after the facility’s antiquated electrical system melted down-just one of 49 Los Angeles County courthouses that have issues ranging from asbestos to zootoxins. Union activists in Baltimore, alarmed by accumulations of pigeon droppings-the same ones referred to by Drake-on the city’s circuit courthouses, as well as blackened office air vents and high incidences of respiratory ailments, campaigned successfully to get the city’s courthouses cleaned. They continue to agitate for regular maintenance and personnel testing. A lawsuit in Massachusetts on behalf of 58 courthouse employees and three lawyers-the suit joined by Ryan-resulted in a court order closing the Norfolk Probate and Family Court in Dedham in 2002. Schmidt v. Norfolk County, No. 02-00614 (Norfolk Co., Mass., Super. Ct.). A ‘line in the sand’ An action over asbestos remediation in the Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse in Cambridge, Mass., is pending before a single justice of commonwealth’s Supreme Judicial Court in Boston. Sullivan v. Chief Justice of Administration and Management, No. SJ-2006-0176 (SJC for Suffolk Co., Mass.). Plaintiffs in that lawsuit include Middlesex County’s clerk of the court and prosecutor, as well as the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Lawyers and at least 200 court employees. The NIOSH is still conducting an inquiry involving the Sullivan courthouse. Martha Coakley, Middlesex County district attorney and a candidate for commonwealth attorney general whose office is in the Sullivan Courthouse, said it became clear that nothing was going to happen until someone filed suit. “The government kept taking its time to do an assessment,” Coakley said, adding that the plaintiffs “drew the line in the sand” when the court administration said it was going to do asbestos abatement with people in the building. Coakley pointed out that her predecessor’s chronic bronchitis went away after he stopped working in the courthouse. Chris A. Milne, of the Milne Law Offices in Dover, Mass., who represents the plaintiffs pro bono in both Massachusetts cases, noted that if “this is what we value most as a society, this justice system that makes our country great, then there’s a deep-rooted problem in that there isn’t the political will or whatever it takes to invest in adequate facilities.” Robert A. Mulligan, chief justice for administration and management for Massachusetts’ Administrative Office of the Trial Court, the judicial official responsible for the maintenance of the commonwealth’s 110 court facilities, declined to discuss pending litigation. But Mulligan said that six new courthouses, beginning with a $180 million, 26-courtroom full service facility in Worcester, underscore the commonwealth’s commitment to courthouse construction. Massachusetts is “a small state committed to building courthouses accessible to everyone and committed to providing a safe and secure environment to its 7,400 courthouse employees and others who use the buildings,” Mulligan said. Richard M. Zielinski of Goulston & Storrs of Boston, who represents Mulligan in the litigation, noted: “You can’t do everything you want to do when you want to do it. We’re focusing on the problem and doing what we can.” Asbestos in L.A. Los Angeles County’s earthquakes ensure that it does not have centenarian courthouses, but workers in the large county court system have health-related complaints similar to their eastern counterparts. Allan Parachini, public information officer for the Los Angeles Superior Court, said that many of the county’s courthouses have asbestos issues because they were built in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition, their electrical systems weren’t designed to bear the heavy burden of today’s computing and electronic demands. “Long Beach Courthouse is the poster child because it presents all of the difficulties that we have all in one place,” Parachini said. Part of Long Beach Courthouse was built in the 1950s and part was built in the 1960s, and the two parts were not properly attached. The building has rats, insects and asbestos issues, and its elevators and escalators, inoperable for several years, recently were put back in operation but still aren’t all working properly, he said. The building, considered an “extreme seismic risk,” is undergoing a $16 million seismic reinforcement work “to keep it standing long enough for people to get out in the event of an earthquake,” Parachini said. Bats in Baltimore In Baltimore, union activism helped to goad officials into cleaning up its two allegedly sick courthouse buildings, one built in 1900 and the other in the 1930s. In addition to rodents, bats and insect infestations, workers claimed that the buildings caused a variety of respiratory problems, unexplained rashes and even several cases-one fatal-of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The union has fought with city and court officials over issues such as air quality testing, but rather than file a lawsuit, it has begun to build a record by sending sick members to the state’s workers’ compensation commission. It won its first case in April and has three or four more cases pending, according to Arthur “Pat” Kelly, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3674 and a Baltimore city circuit courtroom clerk. The union’s pressure and a wider realization that people in other departments-judges, prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies-have developed the same health problems as clerks, led the court and city officials to resolve that Baltimore needs a new criminal courthouse and the complete renovation of its existing buildings. But as in other jurisdictions, the hard part is determining who is responsible for finding the money: the state that pays the clerks’ and judges’ salaries, or the city that owns and maintains the buildings.

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