Family Court

January 01, 1993

Anyone who has been involved in a divorce proceeding, or been part of a child custody hearing, or watched in frustration as a juvenile delinquent and his family get shuffled through the courts has seen firsthand that cases involving family, domestic and juvenile law get short shrift in Maryland.

A blue-ribbon commission appointed by the governor has come up with a sound recommendation, but one that will require effort, thorough planning and probably more money -- a separate court to handle domestic and juvenile cases. The money alone would be enough to dismiss the idea without a second thought -- except that it makes eminent sense and would serve the people of Maryland so much better than the current system. As the courts become increasingly inundated with criminal cases -- which automatically get priority -- domestic cases face unconscionably long delays.

The establishment of a new court would require a constitutional amendment, which would have to be passed by the General Assembly and approved by the voters. That process would in itself be slow, but the wait could give the state time to find ways to cover the additional costs. For instance, a significant part of the extra expense would come from start-up costs, and there may be grant money available for that kind of expense from private sources interested in encouraging judicial reform.

So far, however, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has shown scant interest in his task force's recommendations. In one sense that's understandable, since the new court would eventually cost the state money and the governor is preoccupied with the budget crisis. But recessions don't last forever, and sooner or later Marylanders are going to realize they will only get the quality of government they are willing to pay for. A separate court for family matters would be an improvement that would be felt and appreciated by thousands of Marylanders encountering the judicial system at stressful times of their lives. Despite the current budget crisis, it would be shortsighted to dismiss the proposal out of hand, or simply to ignore it.

One alternative to a separate court system would be a domestic division within the Circuit Court system, as Baltimore City now has. But that would not solve the long waiting periods for domestic cases.

The task force report deserves a public hearing and a thoughtful debate. That's the least the state can do for families who under the current system get short shrift in court.

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