State of the state courts Rising caseloads: Chief Judge Murphy describes near-crisis situation.

January 28, 1996

IN HIS LAST annual report to the General Assembly, Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, who retires from the Maryland Court of Appeals next fall, told lawmakers that the state court system is so overloaded with litigation that its ability to remain a "viable institution of government" is at risk. Despite that assessment, DTC the chief judge did not ask for drastic changes. He didn't have to; a commission is now at work studying the state's judicial system and preparing recommendations for improving it.

Maryland's 132 circuit judges and 98 district judges are coping with a rising number of cases. During the fiscal year that ended last June 30, 262,320 suits and indictments were filed in the 24 circuit courts, including 68,672 criminal cases and 45,866 juvenile cases. The average time between the filing of a case in circuit court and its disposition was 174 days for civil suits and 113 days for criminal matters. By the end of June, the circuit courts were coping with a backlog of some 304,477 untried cases.

Meanwhile, the district court system reported 2.08 million filings last year, a 15 percent increase over the previous year. Even though these cases are almost always resolved quickly, often within an hour or two, the heavy workload for each judge dictates a relentless push to complete each day's docket. That hurried pace, in turn, often creates a sense among citizens with business before the court that the process of justice is as impersonal and insensitive as a factory assembly line.

So there is much for the commission to review. But regardless of its findings, the state's courts will be facing major changes this year with the retirement of both Chief Judge Murphy, who functions as head the entire state judiciary, and Chief Judge Robert F. Sweeney, who heads the district courts.

Governor Parris N. Glendening will appoint Chief Judge Murphy's successor. The new chief judge will, in turn, appoint the next head of the District Court system.

The state courts touch the lives of ordinary citizens in many ways. They need a strong, respected, diligent leader. This appointment will be one of the most important decisions the governor makes.

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