A shortage of clerks at the county's Circuit Court office has created a backlog of paperwork. The result? Court files are incomplete, routine services are delayed and defendants sit in jail longer than usual, waiting for bond hearing dates.
Since January 1991, the clerk'soffice has lost seven employees. One more will depart at the end of the month, leaving a staff of 27. The vacant positions have remained unfilled because of state hiring freezes and budget cuts.
Meanwhile, caseloads have increased. The remaining clerks are doubling up on jobs and cutting back on services to keep things running smoothly. The office has 4,300 civil and 2,000 criminal cases pending.
There are four court clerks for the four circuit judges. Previously, at least one back-up clerk was always available.
"We're the busiest office in the county; we're the record-keeper in the county," said Circuit Court clerk Margaret D. Rappaport. "What's happening is that people aren't getting their services the way I'd like to providethem because of a lack of personnel."
Clerks say they're behind in issuing witness summons and hearing notices, filing court documentsand sorting the 1,000 pieces of mail that come in daily.
Rappaport has informed judges and lawyers about the staff shortage.
"We'reunderstanding of their constraints," said Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney. "I'm sure it's not the way Marge Rappaport wants to run the clerk's office. It's not the way the court would like to have it. But given the budget imperatives from Annapolis, she's not the master of her fate."
One of the most serious results is the delays in scheduling bond review hearings for defendants, said Charlene Nazelrod, supervisor of the courtroom clerks.
If the clerk's office receives a request for a bond review from a jailed defendant who can't make bond,a court hearing would normally be scheduled within two weeks. But with the backlog, it could take up to a month to set a hearing date.
For example, on April 16, the clerks were processing the court paperwork from April 8.
"We're talking almost a month before he actually gets to court for that hearing," Nazelrod said of a defendant who had requested a bond review on April 16.
Clerks said that jailed defendants have called the courthouse complaining that they haven't received a date for a bond hearing.
District Public Defender Carol Hanson said that if a jailed defendant has been waiting for a bond hearing, she sometimes goes to the courthouse to ask a clerk personally to schedule a hearing.
"The idea behind bail hearings is that the person should be released, so you want to get it in as soon as you can," Hanson said.
The most obvious result of the clerk shortage, according to circuit judges, is incomplete court files, which have caused improper rulings in some civil cases.
For example, Sweeney said that on at least three occasions he has signed default orders, meaning that a defendant has not responded to a complaint and is liable. Helater found that the defendant had submitted a response but it hadn't been filed.
To avoid further embarrassments, Sweeney now asks the lawyers whether they've filed any pleadings within the past two weeks, since the latest documents wouldn't be in the court file.
Hanson also cited incomplete criminal files as an inconvenience resultingfrom the clerk shortage. She said the delays have not been detrimental to any of her cases.
"In an ideal world, something would make it to the file room within 24 hours, but everybody knows they're short-staffed," Hanson said.
Clerks in the Land Records Division of theclerk's office say that the rush to refinance mortgages and the recent upturn in the real estate market have left them two weeks behind in their paperwork.
The delays mean that state and county recordingand transfer fees sit in the clerk's office instead of in a bank collecting interest. "We've got to hold onto them for two weeks, and they're not doing anybody any good," said Land Records Supervisor Jeff Bridner.
Because of the staff shortage, attorneys can no longer wait at the clerk's office for clerks to handle routine legal matters like issuing summonses or divorce decrees. The office no longer has thetime or the personnel to handle the walk-in requests.