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The St. Mary’s County Circuit Courthouse can be renamed the John Hanson Briscoe Circuit Courthouse for St. Mary’s County, with passage of legislation by both the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates this session.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is expected to sign the bill. The governor attended services for Briscoe, who died Jan. 1 at age 79.

Briscoe served as a Maryland legislator from 1962 to 1979 and was speaker of the House of Delegates from 1973 to 1979. He then served as circuit court judge in St. Mary’s from 1986 to 2002.

Circuit Court Judge Karen Abrams suggested changing the name of the building in honor of Briscoe.

“He was a wonderful judge,” Abrams said Wednesday. “He was a gentleman, he was fair, he was respectful to everybody. And he instilled that into everyone else he worked with in this courthouse.”

Most of the St. Mary’s County commissioners agreed with the name change. Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R) was opposed.

Jarboe, now a Republican candidate for the Maryland Senate in the June primary, noted in February that Briscoe wanted to move the courthouse from its location in downtown Leonardtown to the county governmental campus in the mid-1990s.

In a statement Jarboe provided at the time, he wrote that he and others worked together to keep the courthouse in its traditional location.

“I am not supportive of naming the historic St. Mary’s County Circuit Courthouse in Leonardtown after the man who did his best to scuttle it. To do so would be the equivalent of naming the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor in honor of Admiral [Isoroku] Yamamoto,” said Jarboe’s statement. Yamamoto was the commander in chief of the Japanese fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into World War II.

“He’s not remembering the reason why [Briscoe] wanted to do that,” Abrams said of Jarboe. “It was solely because it was very obvious that this building would not last many years in terms of what we needed.” Even after the courthouse was renovated, space is still at a premium today, she said.

“Naming the building in Leonardtown that houses the halls of justice for any man will not receive my support,” Jarboe’s statement also said.

Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s) said there is already a precedent for naming a Maryland courthouse after someone. The district courthouse in Montgomery County is named after L. Leonard Ruben, who also served as a legislator and judge. Ruben died in 2007.

Bohanan said Briscoe “distinguished himself on the bench, in the General Assembly and in every walk of life. He was truly a distinguished gentleman.” Briscoe was the 99th speaker of the House and before his tenure it had been 109 years since St. Mary’s County produced a speaker, according to The Enterprise in 1978.

Although Briscoe did want to move the courthouse to the governmental center campus, after it was decided to keep the building where it was, “he ultimately spearheaded the renovation of the modern-day courthouse,” Bohanan said.

“He was very happy to be in this courthouse once he was back in,” Abrams said of Briscoe. While the circuit courthouse was being renovated, court was held in an annex building at the governmental campus, which is now called the Patuxent Building and houses the sheriff’s office, the treasurer, land use and growth management and recreation and parks.

On Sept. 26, 1995, the county commissioners, on a 3-2 vote — with Jarboe, Frances Eagan (R) and Chris Brugman (R) voting yes — decided to keep the courthouse in the downtown area.

Work began on the $11.6 million courthouse renovation in 1999, to add 36,000 square feet to the building. The original section of the courthouse was built in 1901 and an addition finished in 1957. The renovated courthouse was dedicated on June 28, 2001.

Jarboe’s statement said of the occasion, “When we did cut the ribbon on the expansion of the historic circuit courthouse, Judge Briscoe boycotted the ceremony and glowered down on us from a window above.”

Briscoe did attend the dedication ceremony in June 2001 and was one of the speakers, according the July 4, 2001 edition of The Enterprise, which included a photo of him at the podium. “This really isn’t what I envisioned five years ago,” he joked then. “It isn’t the palace I had planned. But I like it.”

The county commissioners didn’t submit a formal letter of support to rename the courthouse after Briscoe, though three of them — Commission President Jack Russell (D), Cindy Jones (R) and Todd Morgan (R) — said they supported the change. Commissioner Dan Morris (R) said he preferred to have a section of the courthouse named after Briscoe rather than the entire building.

The law permitting the courthouse to be renamed takes effect on Oct. 1.

jbabcock@somdnews.com