Schaefer joins the foes of automatic new trials STATE HOUSE REPORT

February 04, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

It's called a de novo appeal and, depending on your point of view, it's either gumming up the judicial works or helping Maryland courts run smoothly.

The Schaefer administration opposes the de novo provision, which allows any District Court defendant who doesn't like the outcome of a case to automatically get a new trial at the next level, Circuit Court.

Past efforts to eliminate the appeal have failed in the General Assembly, perhaps because the body is dominated by lawyers, who support the provision.

But now, for the first time, a governor has backed the state's top judges in arguing that the automatic right to a completely new trial should end. Still, the change faces tough going in the state Senate.

The de novo (once more) provision predates the District Court system, which was established in 1971; previously trial magistrates presided in the lowest courts -- some weren't even lawyers -- so that was why the automatic appeal was provided.

"This [appeal provision] is an anachronism," Robert F. Sweeney, chief judge of the state's District Courts, told the senate Judicial Proceedings committee yesterday.

"Year after year the General Assembly adds to the jurisdiction of the District Courts," Judge Sweeney said. "We can now be the court of record on civil cases of $20,000. Yet on a simple shoplifting case, a new trial can automatically take place.

"The feeling of our judges is that they are demeaned by this," he said.

"It's mindless, it's senseless," Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, said of a defendant's automatic right to a new trial if he doesn't like the verdict or sentence at the District level.

But supporters of de novo told the committee that doing away with the provision would cause many defendants to skip District Court and request Circuit Court trials, clogging the circuit level with far more than the 4,500 de novo cases it now gets each year.

"Most criminal cases are tried at the District level, and the vast majority [of defendants] are sufficiently satisfied with the result," said Roger Perkins, president of the state bar association.

"It works. There's no problem now."

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