Another Judge for Harford

March 02, 1994

The heavy backlog of cases in Harford Circuit Court has long been a problem that has gone unaddressed. Defendant rights to a speedy trial have been compromised, resulting in constitutional appeals to overturn clear but belated convictions.

The caseload for four judges sitting in the Bel Air courthouse has soared from 4,000 cases for four judges a decade ago to nearly 7,000 last year. The number of criminal cases filed each year has doubled since 1983, when the fourth Harford judge was added. And civil cases outnumber criminal by a 2-to-1 margin.

Repeated postponements for lack of judge or jury panel or courtroom to hold trials have become too common. Vacations, illnesses and other absences by judges also result in rescheduling of cases beyond the 180-day limit set by Maryland law.

Under the complicated formula used by the state Administrative Office of Courts, Harford's judicial burden requires 1.7 more judges. That is the third highest need in the state, right behind Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which each justify two more jurists.

Given the tight-budget mentality in this year's General Assembly, the full complement of judges needed in Maryland won't be authorized. The governor's budget recommends one new judge for each of these counties, plus a part-time assignment for Charles County. That is a minimum requirement that does not bloat the state payroll, but assuredly does improve the quality of justice that is essential to our legal system.

Besides, the cost of additional judges is shared by the counties and the state. Another Circuit Court justice for Harford would cost an estimated $175,000 a year, including salary and support staff, equipment and space. The Harford administration is committed to paying for another judge.

Harford countians should also be aware that another judge will put further pressures on limited space in the old courthouse. The County Council, which occupies the basement, worries that it could be pushed out by expansion of judiciary needs. With only three courtrooms, one of them frequently needed for jury selection, the physical facilities are already strained. Certainly, more government space will be required to meet these needs.

But the appointment of a fifth judge in Harford is needed now, if the judicial system is to function as intended. The legislature should approve new judges for Harford and the other three counties listed in this year's state judiciary budget.

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