ANNAPOLIS -- Local funding for Maryland's 24 circuit courts is uneven and so inadequate in some jurisdictions such as Baltimore that a state takeover of the courts is the only way to ensure prompt and equitable justice, Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy of the Court of Appeals said yesterday.
The chief judge also urged state legislators to review the state's death penalty, which was restored in 1978. Declaring he was "not an advocate one way or the other," Judge Murphy said the cost of prosecuting capital murder cases was so high that some jurisdictions might shy away from seeking the death penalty.
Judge Murphy made his remarks in his annual State of the Judiciary speech to the General Assembly.
"More than any other court level, circuit courts are confronted with the terrible carnage wrought upon our people by the illicit drugs which infest and haunt our communities," he said. "State assumption of the circuit court costs is consistent with the general perception that these courts are the state's responsibility."
In addition to varying funding levels, the circuit courts are the only courts in the state that are not unified, do not have a chief judge to oversee administrative and managerial problems and are not totally funded by the state, he said.
While several circuit courts, particularly those along the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland, have their own funding problems, Baltimore's is in the worst shape by far, said Judge Murphy.
The number of criminal defendants awaiting trial in Baltimore increased last year from 1,400 to 2,300; the jurisdiction handled 10,000 more drug cases than Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties combined; and, according to one report, the court may not be able to try any civil cases in three to five years because of the priority given to criminal cases.
"Obviously, our funding situation is not good, and it's not going to get better as time goes on," said Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of Baltimore Circuit Court. "I think it's alarming. I think it's more alarming that by April of '92 we'll be out of money."
Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms said yesterday that he had to postpone an attempted murder case for the third time because he could not find an open courtroom.
"We can send up a rocket that costs $1 million to intercept another rocket, but we can't do the simple, basic things -- get a person a fair trial," he said. "I think the only way out is to structure a plan under which the courts and the prosecutors get some or all state support."
Judge Murphy's call for a state takeover of the circuit courts is but one of several initiatives put forth this legislative session to help financially strapped Baltimore. In his State of the State address last week, Gov. William Donald Schaefer asked that the state take over the city's jail and its zoo.
With those two ideas already floating around the General Assembly, a state takeover of the circuit courts was met with skepticism by some state legislators.
"I think that we should think about these items one at a time. There's no need to stampede into a state takeover of everything," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "I can't see where it can fly, especially in view of the fact that we have such a tremendous fiscal problem that is facing the state right now."