Two Carroll Delegates Seek Changes In Judical Laws

Matthews Wants A Listing Of Judges' Votes

February 06, 1991|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff writer

ANNAPOLIS — To constituents, it often doesn't matter how many hours of testimony legislators absorb on both sides of an issue or what factors contribute to their decisions.

What constituents do notice is the bottom line -- how a legislator votes on issues, contained in easily discerned tally sheets available to the public here.

Delegate Richard C. Matthews, R-Carroll, wants to make it as easyfor the public to evaluate judges' decisions in certain cases as it is to review lawmakers' voting records. However, the Maryland State Bar Association is opposing his effort.

"We live in an age of disclosure," Matthews told the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday in a hearing on his bill to require the state Administrative Office of the Courts to compile and maintain a register including information on sentences imposed by individual judges. "Wherever and whenever feasible, the law requires government to operate in the open."

Except for cases receiving media attention, a judge's sentencing decisions are "shrouded in mystery," said Matthews, referring to the judicial record-keeping system. He said the public has an especially difficult time evaluating records of elected Circuit Court judges.

Matthews' bill would require the administrative office to list, for Court of Appeals judges, all votes on death penalty appeals in which the justice was involved; for Circuit Court, sentences imposed for all non-jury trials involving crimes of violence; and for District Court, all sentences imposed for drunken driving.

The register would include the name ofthe case, charges against the defendant, convictions handed down, the sentence imposed and the date the sentence was imposed.

The legislative director for the state bar association objected to the bill at the hearing, saying it would "institutionalize a flawed approach."

"It attempts to distill a very complex sentencing process and boilit down into a simple list," said Albert Winchester. "Each case should be reviewed separately on its distinctive features."

Carroll Circuit Court Judge Raymond E. Beck agreed, saying the capsulized information could create many misunderstandings for non-lawyers reviewing the proposed register. Many variables combine to produce a final verdict and sentence, said Beck, who was not at the hearing.

Matthews said the register would make judges "more responsible to the community" and add credibility to the judicial system.

But it also could have a "chilling effect, hampering the functioning of an independent judiciary," said Winchester.

The information required for the register now is available to the public through court dockets, which referto specific case files.

A Judiciary Committee member asked Matthews why the register should be established at government expense when the public already can look up the information. The bar association objects to spending the estimated $157,000 it would cost in fiscal 1992 to start and run the program, said Winchester.

Matthews responded that the public should have access to a more simplified record-keeping system.

Beck said the register is not a bad idea if the state can support it financially.

But he said it could place a hardship on Carroll Circuit Court if it would require additional personnel andoffice space. County courts are under a hiring freeze and already suffer from over crowding problems.

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