Members of the Maryland State Bar Association are looking for a few good civil cases to settle, and they know the cases are out there on the dockets of the state's circuit courts.
"We know that cases are going to settle -- a certain number are going to settle, anyway," said Judge James C. Cawood Jr., co-chairman of the association's Alternate Dispute Resolution Committee. Judge Cawood sits on the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.
Last year, according to the 1990 Annual Report of the Maryland Judiciary, 102,193 civil cases were terminated throughout the state, but only 6,891 -- 6.7 percent -- ended in a trial. The rest were out-of-court settlements.
Each year, more and more cases are added to the civil dockets. They are filed faster than they can be resolved. Last year, the state's civil docket increased by almost 27,000 cases over the previous year. The result is an ever-lengthening civil court backlog.
The bar association wants to cut that backlog by settling cases before they go to trial. Last year, when the program was begun on an experimental basis in five subdivisions -- Allegany, Anne Arundel, Dorchester and Montgomery counties and Baltimore -- 436 cases were settled over a three-day period. This year, "Settlement Week" is back and has been expanded to nine jurisdictions with 300 attorneys volunteering their time as mediators. Association members hope to settle 2,000 cases.
The circuit courts of Baltimore and the counties of Montgomery, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Dorchester, Frederick, Howard and Prince George's will have some form of Settlement Week -- even if it lasts only a day.
Montgomery County held a settlement day Oct. 25 and disposed of 110 cases -- many of them by attorneys whose cases were scheduled for the special settlement conferences. Prince George's County held a settlement day Nov. 16 and had 400 cases scheduled for settlement. Baltimore Circuit Court has set next week as its Settlement Week. Court officials hope to dispose of 1,000 cases, some dating back to 1968.
"It's the wave of the future for civil litigation," Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of Baltimore Circuit Court, said of the settlement initiative.
"There's no doubt that just sending out notices stimulates settlement," said Ellen Steiger, the court's assignment commissioner.
Though Maryland is still experimenting with court-devised means of settlement, such ideas have been embraced and implemented elsewhere. In Washington, forging out-of-court settlements is a full-time job for the Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Division of the city's Superior Court. The division's staff reviews civil cases and recommends certain ones for early settlement. About half of the recommended cases are settled early, according to the program director, Melinda Ostermeyer.