County starts search to fill new judicial post

May 08, 1994|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Sun Staff Writer

Wanted: A Howard County lawyer with an excellent knowledge of the law, broad courtroom experience and a good temperament to serve as the county's fifth Circuit Court judge.

County and state officials are beginning the selection process for the new judgeship, which was approved by the state General Assembly in this year's legislative session.

Raymond Kane Jr., the Circuit Court's administrative judge, said the fifth judge will help ease a civil and criminal caseload that has more than doubled since the court got its last new judgeship in 1981.

"The fifth judge, at least for the immediate future, will allow us to address our needs," said Judge Kane.

Statistics in the Maryland judiciary's annual report show that court filings in Howard County Circuit Court have increased from 3,509 cases in 1981 to 7,380 cases last year.

To deal with the growing caseload, the county brought in retired Judge J. Thomas Nissel to try cases 70 days last year.

But Howard was still the second-slowest county in the state to dispose of civil cases last year, behind only Anne Arundel County, according to the state report.

Howard's civil cases took an average of 245 days to be resolved, while Anne Arundel's cases took 249 days.

Howard handled its criminal cases more quickly, concluding them in an average 130 days, the report says. The county ranked as the 12th-slowest, about the middle of the range.

Not only does the county have more cases, but they are more complex and protracted, Judge Kane said.

"When I first came on the bench, it was unusual to have a trial that lasted more than a day or so," he said. "The legal issues are now much more significant."

In recent years, the county has had two lengthy cases that attracted nationwide attention and drained the resources of the court -- the trials in the carjacking murder of Pam Basu and the slaying of state police Trooper Theodore Wolf.

Judge Kane said he believes the Circuit Court may need a sixth judge in about five years as the population continues to grow. Howard had 125,900 residents when Judge Kane was appointed in 1981, and now has about 218,000.

Howard officials have been trying to get a new judge for several years, but legislators cut the request out of the state budget until this spring.

The General Assembly set aside $89,000 in the new budget for the judge's annual salary. Legislators also provided funding for new judgeships in Charles, Harford and Prince George's counties.

The money will be available next February.

County Court Administrator John Shatto said the courthouse's Master in Chancery hearing rooms or the grand jury room will be converted into a courtroom for the new judge. Office space already is available.

The selection process for the new judge will start after the County Council approves the 1994-1995 budget May 23. The budget is expected to contain $85,000 to pay the salaries of the three-member staff for the judge.

Applications for the judgeship go to the state Court of Appeals, which will send them to the state Judicial Nominating Commission.

The county Bar Association will provide the state commission with its recommendations based on reviews of the applications and interviews with the candidates.

The state commission will provide information on its top candidates to the governor, who will appoint the new judge. The judge would have to be confirmed in the first election after the appointment. If approved by the voters, the judge would serve a 15-year term.

James Eagan III, a Columbia lawyer and president of the county Bar Association, said he is concerned the county's best lawyers won't apply for the judgeship because of the court's heavy workload. He added that many lawyers make more money in private practices than they would as a judge.

"You leave your practice and then you have the prospect of being defeated in an election," he said. "People with successful practices are reluctant to take that step."

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