Three dozen lawyers showed up yesterday to learn about a program devised by Baltimore's Circuit Court judges to tackle the thousands of cases that are piling up faster than the courts can handle them.
Some judges already have volunteered to act as mediators to settle cases, and yesterday the court asked the attorneys, from area law firms and bar associations, to do the same.
Judge Ellen M. Heller, who is coordinating the plan, said that only 240 civil cases are assigned to judges each month while about 600 new civil cases are filed, not including hundreds of asbestos injury claims, which are being handled separately. One judge already is working to clear a mass of inactive cases, which may have been settled or dropped but remain in the system.
One reason for the civil delays is the growing criminal docket, which has increased by 40 percent in the past two years, said Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan. Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial, taking precedence over civil cases.
"As you know, it's getting tougher and tougher to get a civil jury case heard in Baltimore City," Judge Kaplan told the lawyers. Although the goal is trial within 13 months, "we are lucky to get a case tried within 24 months of the request, and the number keeps increasing," he said. "As we all know, justice delayed is justice denied."
So the judges have voted unanimously to mediate cases to avoid long waits for trials. There are 4,000 ready to go to trial now.
"It really represents a volunteer effort by the bench and bar without spending any public monies . . . which we do not have," said Judge Heller.
The program will begin May 1, when 15 of the city's 25 judges will start holding settlement conferences on two civil cases a day. If the mediation fails, the judge will set a trial within 30 days. A looming trial date tends to speed settlement.
But judges alone can't solve the problem, Judge Heller said. "We can't begin to attack the backlog without the help of the bar," she said, asking lawyers to provide that help by volunteering to mediate cases.
Veteran attorney Robert M. Goldman offered his services immediately, and the offer was accepted gladly. He'll conduct a trial settlement day next month to see whether Judge Heller's projection of 10 cases being heard daily by the lawyer volunteers is realistic.
As with plea-bargaining in criminal cases, settlements stop 90 percent of civil cases before trial, said Judge Heller, who has worked on the plan for more than a year.
The lawyers peppered her with questions. But there appeared to be a consensus that only a serious threat of trial would encourage parties to reach a settlement -- raising the question of how to make a threatened trial date stick in a backed-up courthouse.
That is "the most vulnerable part of the program," Judge Heller agreed. But she noted the success of a similar call-your-bluff approach in criminal cases, with the number of misdemeanor defendants asking for full-scale trials in Circuit Court dropping dramatically since the court began granting that demand -- and scheduling the trials immediately.
So she asked the lawyers to put aside their doubts and iron out problems as they occur.