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There’s nothing like a deadline imposed by a judge to motivate people to action. Just five days before the date set by Warren County Assignment Judge Robert Guterl for evicting the law library from the space-squeezed Belvidere, N.J., courthouse, county freeholders found a way to keep the books on the shelves. Guterl had ordered the eviction “with reluctance,” he says, as a last-ditch measure when his earlier entreaties fell on deaf ears. “I gave that order several weeks ago when I was told there was no possibility of a solution,” says the judge. The freeholders voted 3-0 on Jan. 10 to approve an arrangement that will instead send the county Tax Board packing across the street to the Cummins Building, already occupied by the Department of Human Services. It was the same solution that had been rejected last fall after Guterl wrote to County Administrator Steve Marvin in July asking that the Tax Board be relocated outside the courthouse as soon as possible. Guterl said the move was needed to free up space for expanding the court’s central fee office, which was necessary to comply with state directives. Nothing happened. Guterl says he was not apprised of the details, merely informed “that it couldn’t be worked out.” Says Marvin: “Back then the perception was that moving the Tax Board into the space considered wasn’t going to work.” Marvin says he thinks the fact that the planned eviction made the situation more desperate “had a lot to do with” the county’s acceptance of the previously rejected solution. He also refers to “a lot of behind the scenes efforts by the Bar Association to continue providing a law library.” Warren County Bar Association President Michael Selvaggi appeared before the freeholders several times during the past few months urging a solution. Selvaggi says he suggested use of a trailer until space became available and was even willing to store the boxes of books at his Hacketstown, N.J., firm, Courter, Kobert, Laufer & Cohen, to be sure they didn’t get lost. “Nothing was moving in any direction,” says Selvaggi. In November, county bar members voted to take legal action, if necessary, to preserve the library. The bar would have sought a restraining order and arbitration under Rule 1:33-9, which provides for arbitration of disputes between the county and the assignment judge over courthouse facilities, Selvaggi says. He credits newly elected Freeholder Michael Doherty, a patent lawyer, though not a member of the county bar, with turning things around during the past week. Selvaggi contacted Doherty and fellow incoming Freeholder John DiMaio. He says they agreed that it was an important issue that required immediate attention. The third holdover freeholder is attorney James DeBosh, a county bar member. It was Doherty who put forward the Tax Board proposal approved by the freeholder board, urging that loss of the library would cause irreparable harm. “I thought there was a possibility of some serious harm being done if we didn’t preserve the library,” says Doherty, an associate with Westfield, N.J.’s Lerner, David, Littenberg, Krumholz & Mentlik. “Once the books were packed into boxes, who’s to say if we would ever get them back.” It is not just loss of the law library that has been averted, says Selvaggi, but also the loss of the only space in the courthouse where lawyers can confer privately with clients. Guterl agrees that the absence of a single conference room, other than the library, is a real problem. He contrasts Warren with Somerset County, which has 14 conference rooms for its seven courtrooms. Selvaggi says he told the freeholder board last week that he has even resorted to meeting with male clients in the bathroom. Selvaggi emphasizes that the public, especially pro se litigants, had a lot at stake as well. As he points out, lawyers usually have other access to research materials. Guterl says the roughly 1,000 users of the Somerset County Law Library last month were almost evenly split among lawyers, courthouse personnel and pro se litigants. He thinks the breakdown in Warren is probably similar. Clients also would have been impacted by loss of a room where they could meet with their attorneys. Being involved in litigation is already stressful for most, says Selvaggi, and “discussing settlement proposals or other important matters if you’re being jostled around the hallways or being constantly interrupted only heightens that anxiety.” Though the library has been saved, what Guterl calls the “fundamental problem” of an overcrowded courthouse remains. Marvin agrees. “We’ve been putting Band-Aids on this terminal patient for a long time,” he says. “This is just the latest Band-Aid.” Long-term relief is not imminent. A study ordered by the county to examine the relative merits of building a new courthouse or renovating the old one is under way, and Guterl expects it will be completed by summer. The report will then be reviewed and voted on. Whatever course is chosen will require years for the bidding and construction processes, predicts Selvaggi. “Realistically, we’re looking at 2004 or 2005 until the process is done.”
Litigation Technology 2001. February 13-27.

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