For many in Baltimore, serving jury duty is about as much fun as going to the dentist, thanks to long waits to be called and, more specifically, the crowded and sometimes noisy conditions in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse’s waiting rooms.
But this year, officials are taking steps to make jury duty more bearable.
Next Tuesday, Mayor Catherine Pugh, Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, Administrative Judge Michel Pierson and others will cut the ribbon on a new jury assembly room supplementing the ones that have been in use for decades.
The upgraded version–the new “quiet” waiting room–is more like a college library than a bus station. It seats up to 56 and has been in service for about two weeks. Jurors can eat and drink beverages in the room. The main rule is that people are asked not to talk on cell phones, and otherwise must keep talking to a whisper.
In the new space, Room 320, the seats are moveable and more spread out. It’s equipped with more outlets to plug in computers and charging stations for cell phones. The lighting is bright, and the air conditioning system is new. The restrooms are unisex, among the first in the building. WiFi is coming.
The room itself has new floors and restored wood trim and ornamental plasterwork, including decorative crown moldings that were in place when the building first opened in 1899. The original details are supplemented by a large mural depicting Baltimore’s harbor, entitled “Historic Views of Baltimore 1752-1857″ and painted by local artist Robert Hieronimus.
“The jury room is important because every resident of Baltimore has to pass through it eventually,” said Jackson Gilman-Forlini, Historic Properties Program coordinator for the city’s Department of General Services, which manages design and construction on the city-owned building. “We wanted to make this an inviting and pleasant space for the jurors. That was the main goal, to make this as comfortable as possible.”
On any given day, up to 400 people are called to serve jury duty at the Mitchell courthouse at 100 N. Calvert St. According to Melissa Monroe, jury commissioner for the Eighth Circuit Court for Baltimore City, about 65,000 people came for at least one day in 2017.
“We understand that conditions in this old building can be…old,” she said. “We don’t want to discourage people from coming. We want to encourage them to come in and be comfortable and spread the word: Come to jury duty.”
The new space has been in the works for years. Gilman-Forlini said the area was previously used as offices by the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, but became available when attorneys relocated.
To create the new waiting room, workers took out partitions to open up the space and added new heating and ventilation systems, as well as furniture that allows jurors to sit by a window.
Gilman-Forlini said the project cost just under $500,000. Funds came from the state of Maryland, since the Circuit Court for Baltimore City is part of the state court system. Gannett Fleming Inc. was the project architect. All work will be completed by December, he said.
The mural provides a visual centerpiece for the room. Measuring four feet high by 24 feet long, it depicts Baltimore’s harbor over three periods of its development.
Hieronimus, who will be honored with a mayoral citation, was commissioned to paint the mural to help celebrate the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. It puts a whimsical spin on history, with vignettes such as an imagined depiction of George Washington crossing the Inner Harbor and a sighting of Chessie the Sea Serpent of the Chesapeake Bay.
The work is set to be rededicated on Tuesday. Originally unveiled by former Mayor William Donald Schaefer during a mayoral ball held as part of the bicentennial celebrations, it was initially displayed at the Baltimore Museum of Art and then moved to the War Memorial Building near City Hall. The city loaned it to the American Visionary Art Museum for a recent show, and the museum restored it.
Gilman-Forlini said the jury room team had been looking for a work of art that would fit the new space, and the mural had just the right dimensions. The new location also gives the work more exposure than it had at the War Memorial Building, he said.
Jurors can still wait in two other rooms besides Room 320, including another third-floor space where they can watch movies. But now they have another option. On a recent visit, they seemed happy to follow the rules, and just about every seat was taken.
As part of the project, Gilman-Forlini said, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts is developing a postcard of the Hieronimus mural that jurors will be able to take with them as a souvenir of their service.
“It’s a civic duty,” he said. “But it should also be pleasant.”