Audrey Jenkins went to Howard Circuit Court Monday expecting to see the trial of the man charged in the 1993 chloroform-inhalation death of her daughter. But Mrs. Jenkins left the courthouse in Ellicott City with frustration and a postponement when the case was bounced from the schedule because there were no judges available to preside over a trial.
That case and four others ready for trial the same day were postponed -- a maneuver that's become a Circuit Court routine this year, as officials wait for Gov. Parris N. Glendening to fill two vacant judgeships.
The delay in filling the judgeships is causing many cases to be regularly put off, making more work for the three sitting judges and stirring anxieties in the Howard legal community. But for Mrs. Jenkins, it boils down to emotions put on hold.
"It's frustrating, because we can't put a closure on this," said Mrs. Jenkins of Baltimore. "If we can get this trial over with, we can go on."
Mrs. Jenkins said she's so frustrated by postponement of the trial of Melvin Robert Bowers of Ellicott City that she's thinking about writing a letter to Mr. Glendening, and called the courthouse situation "ridiculous."
The judgeships became an issue in the spring when two Howard minority groups asked Mr. Glendening to scrap a list of finalists for the first vacancy, saying the candidates did not represent the county's racial diversity.
That list appears to be in limbo and a list of candidates for the second judgeship has yet to be reviewed because the governor has not named nine of the 13 members of the state Judicial Nominating Commission for Howard County, a group that screens candidates for the bench.
Marilyn Corbett, a spokeswoman for Mr. Glendening, said the governor is "moving very quickly" to fill the commission, noting that he had to wait for the county bar association to elect four of the commissioners -- which was done this month.
The commission should be in place by Sept. 8, the date of an orientation session for nominating commissions throughout Maryland. Ms. Corbett said the governor hopes to have the judges named by October.
"It's a lengthy process," Ms. Corbett said. "But we believe it's going to result in having very, very qualified judges who will reflect the diversity of the state."
Meanwhile, Ellicott City attorney Fred Howard Silverstein said the situation is causing problems for everyone involved in the legal process, from judges to courthouse clerks who get inundated with telephone calls from people checking on cases.
"It's just causing such a high level of anxiety for everyone who touches the system," said Mr. Silverstein, president of the county bar association. "It's grossly unfair."
But the problems in Circuit Court may go beyond anxieties.
Howard Circuit Judge James B. Dudley is concerned that Mr. Glendening is politicizing the appointments by making racial diversity such an issue for the judgeships.
Because of the delays, resentment may grow to a point where the new judges will have stiff competition when they stand for election to their posts, Judge Dudley said.
"It's going to engender opposition," Judge Dudley said. "It's bad for the system . . . because it's pure, unadulterated politics."
'Heads above water'
While the Circuit Court's three judges maintain they are managing the caseload fairly well, other courthouse workers fear that the longer it takes to get the new judges, the bigger backlogs will become.
"I don't see it as a panic situation," Circuit Judge Dennis Sweeney said. "I think we're keeping our heads above water."
Many expected Mr. Glendening to name the first new judge for Circuit Court in the spring -- in time to pick up the slack left by Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr., who retired in March. Then, Judge Sybert's position was expected to be filled this summer.
For the last five months, the court's three judges have been doing the work of five.
Judge Sweeney said the heavy caseload for the judges is causing them to spend more time in courtrooms, rather than their chambers, where they often get most of their work done.
Judge Dudley noted that he has spread a pretrial hearing for a civil case over 12 days since December because his schedule would not permit him to concentrate on the hearing. He said the hearing should have lasted no more than four consecutive days.
But the problems the court is experiencing now should not be difficult to overcome once the new judges start working. "The enthusiasm that the new people will have . . . it's like a rush of adrenalin," Judge Dudley said.
Judge Sweeney said the situation could be worse had the county been experiencing major crimes that would require lengthy trials.
At one point in the early 1990s, the court had 11 pending murder trials, Judge Sweeney noted. Now, there are four pending murder and manslaughter cases.
Judge Sweeney said he's only going to worry about the court's caseload if Mr. Glendening doesn't appoint the new judges within the next few months.