Family court backed Many judges cool to Schaefer plan

March 03, 1993|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Staff Writer

The creation of a family court in Maryland to hear cases ranging from divorces to juvenile delinquency was widely endorsed yesterday as a way to better handle increasingly complex social issues.

But many state judges -- including Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy -- were either opposed or cool to the Schaefer administration's measure as burdensome to the courts.

And a key lawmaker dismissed it as unnecessary, saying the Circuit Court has the power to create a family division.

"There isn't any question that a family court is needed now. . . . It's highly specialized," said Gov. William Donald Schaefer, unveiling the legislation at a morning news conference.

Two state studies have called for a family court as a way to end the fragmented and inefficient way that Maryland deals with domestic legal problems, which account for more than 50 percent of all cases filed. Such family cases take too long and contribute to a years-long backlog of other civil cases.

Mr. Schaefer is proposing a family court within the existing Circuit Court structure in Maryland to handle 11 types of family law cases. In each of the state's 24 circuit courts, judges would be assigned exclusively to the Family Division for four years, a term that could be extended by administrative judges.

The bill calls for the court to convene July 1, 1995.

Although Baltimore's Circuit Court has had a domestic division for decades, it does not handle all the domestic cases proposed under the Schaefer bill, such as juvenile delinquency. And the city's Circuit Court judges are not assigned permanently to domestic cases, but are rotated.

The Schaefer proposal would cost about $1.2 million each year for new administrators and support staff for the family court, Schaefer aides said.

Thirteen states have separate family courts, which were described as successful during the news conference.

The family court measure got a boost yesterday before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee from lawyers, child advocates and state officials, including Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who chaired one of the family court study committees.

Besides better coordinating all state services for family cases, // the proposed court would produce judges more adept at domestic cases.

"We are more likely over time to have judges who are interested in and able to spend the time needed on family law cases," said Mr. Curran.

Rita Rosenkrantz, chair of the Family and Juvenile Law Section of the state bar association, said the court is needed since domestic law is becoming more complex and separation and divorce more common.

"We cannot afford a delay," testified Terry L. Harmon of Montgomery County, whose divorce took seven years to complete.

But Committee Chairman Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, while calling the measure "admirable," questioned whether it is needed, explaining the Circuit Court could create such a family court through regulation.

While some judges came out for the proposal -- including Court of Special Appeals Judge Rosalyn Bell -- many more were opposed. Those against the measure say they favor the family court concept but call the bill impractical.

Vincent E. Ferretti Jr., associate judge of the Montgomery County Circuit Court and president of the state circuit judges association, said nearly all his colleagues oppose the four-year term for the family court.

Meanwhile, Judge Murphy said that while he was neither in favor nor opposed to the bill, "There's a lot of problems with it."

He said some judges might not want to serve solely on family matters.

Smaller counties, which have fewer judges, could face greater delays if their judges are dedicated to domestic cases. Judge hTC Murphy, who has long called for more Circuit Court judges, also was troubled by the variety of cases that would be handled by the family law judges. "That is a tremendous load," he said.

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