"It's nothing short of a miracle," said Maryland's top judge yesterday as lawyers and Baltimore courthouse officials celebrated the defeat of a frustrating problem: Civil lawsuit logjam.
Nearly 100 volunteer attorneys were honored at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse for their labor since October as unpaid mediators once a month, each day nudging the parties in 10 civil suits toward out-of-court settlements.
A big inducement for the settlements was putting an end to an interminable waiting time for trials. Baltimore's Circuit Court had been choking under the weight of 4,505 civil cases not even scheduled, and a projected waiting time of nearly two years.
But that was before the "miracle," as Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy put it yesterday as he and Court of Special Appeals Chief Judge Alan M. Wilner thanked the lawyers for their free time.
"We have totally eliminated the backlog," said Circuit Judge Ellen M. Heller, coordinator of the city's Civil Mediation Program.
Judge Heller said that initially, she thought it would be a "hard sell" to get volunteers, but was pleased with the response to the court's appeal for help.
Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan joked that there have been complaints the cases are proceeding too fast now, and referred to the new docket -- with the waiting time reduced to about a year -- as the "Rocket Docket."
According to Judge Heller, the 25 city Circuit judges realized last year they had to attack the backlog because the caseload was growing by 600 cases a month -- excluding asbestos litigation, divorces, child-custody and child-support cases.
Meanwhile, they had to dispose of 5,256 felony and 3,290 misdemeanor criminal cases filed that year. Because of criminal defendants' constitutional rights to speedy trials, civil cases were put on the back burner, Judge Heller said.
"We were aware of our civil docket getting very far behind because of the number of felony criminal cases in Baltimore City, the increase in drug cases in Baltimore City and the limited number of judges," Judge Heller said.
The 25 judges, including the seven who normally handle civil cases, knew that the state's economic woes precluded additional funding to attack the civil case backlog, so Judge Heller said she proposed a three-pronged alternative: A judicial settlement plan, an attorney mediation plan and a scheduling order.
Under the first plan, 12 to 15 judges scheduled two settlement conferences a day; the volunteer lawyers each mediated 10 cases a day; and a computer programmer on loan from the State Administrative Office of the Courts set up a computerized trial schedule for the remaining cases within a year of their filing dates.
"We have a total success on our hands," Judge Heller said. "That shows justice can be expedient."
Bud McManus, one of the lawyers receiving a certificate of appreciation yesterday, said he gained valuable experience while donating his time. He said he believes mediation will become common practice in the future as more litigants choose quicker solutions.
Mr. McManus saw his volunteer work revising a stereotype. "Anything I can do to help the community change its attitude toward attorneys, I'm going to do," he said.