Maryland should ease the nastiness and expense of divorce and other domestic disputes by creating a "family court" to handle issues ranging from child custody to juvenile delinquency.
Members of the Governor's Task Force on Family Law say the new court would end the inefficient, fragmented way in which Maryland deals with domestic legal problems -- which range from simple divorces to right-to-die cases.
"It's costly. It takes forever to get through the process," says House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, a task force member and a lawyer. "Anybody who does divorce law knows that clearly there's a need for this. The question is, can we afford to do this now?"
The family court is just one recommendation from the 11-member task force, which has spent two years studying the issues.
The panel also urges that the state abolish current grounds for divorce -- such as adultery and desertion -- in favor of one no-blame ground, a one-year separation. An overwhelming majority of states have moved to some form of no-fault divorce.
The task force also recommends new guidelines for establishing child support payments and support for a spouse.
The task force found that women generally are worse off financially than men after a divorce. But the panel chose not to try to balance that inequity by endorsing large alimony payments.
Instead, it proposes a formula for income settlements that takes into account such factors as a spouse's age and his or her chances of earning a reasonable salary as a single person.
And in disputes over child visitation, "denial of visitation should be dealt with as severely and strictly as nonpayment of child support," the report says.
"Our goal is to make the divorce process as benevolent as possible without interjecting additional trauma on a divorcing couple from the process itself," the task force's final report reads.
How many of the recommendations might be offered as legislation this year is not certain -- particularly if the initiatives might cost money in a tight budget year.
Aides to Gov. William Donald Schaefer say he has over the years supported the creation of a family court. But the governor's legislative agenda is still being assembled, and it is unclear if Mr. Schaefer will sponsor legislation based on the task force report.
Legislators who support changes in the state's approach to domestic law are expected to sponsor such legislation themselves.
The change would allow one judge to hear all legal issues confronting one family and would offer help such as shelter, mediation and counseling.
"Sometimes the courts are at cross purposes," says Baltimore Democratic Del. Kenneth Montague, who will sponsor family-court legislation when the General Assembly meets in January. "They don't look at families as a whole."
Jill Schulze, a gubernatorial assistant who worked with the task force, says Marylanders believe results in divorce and custody cases vary widely from county to county. "There's a public perception of unfairness. Different judges bring different feelings and experiences to the issues."
Creation of a family court also would allow judges with expertise and interest in domestic cases to hear them exclusively. The system would also have a separate clerical staff with special knowledge of family law. The task force envisions a system so uncomplicated that staff members could easily help people who have no lawyers file the correct papers.
Other states have family courts -- though not all are successful, Ms. Schulze says. The ideal recommended by the task force is a separate court, equal to the Circuit Court, housed in the local jurisdictions in separate buildings with separate staff.
The court would hear divorce cases, petitions to end a parent's rights, right-to-die cases, child and spousal support issues and juvenile delinquency cases.
But because of the state's budget problems, task force members do not foresee an entire new court system -- with new judges and staff -- established this year.
The cost of such a system has not yet been estimated. But "whatever it is, the governor doesn't have it," says retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Robert B. Watts, the task force chairman.
Creation of a new court would require a constitutional amendment. The alternative -- which would be less expensive and wouldn't need a constitutional change -- is creating a family division within the Circuit Court.
In Baltimore, Circuit Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, says that the court already has a domestic division, which includes three of the system's 25 judges.
But task force members say judges who hear domestic cases rarely are assigned there permanently. The family court would allow judges to specialize in domestic matters.
Judge Kaplan says he does not oppose creation of a family division in Circuit Court, but he differs with the task force recommendation that juvenile delinquency cases be included.