Kaplan warns that city Circuit Court is close to gridlock He wants more judges to handle crush of cases

March 08, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

A torrent of criminal and civil cases has left the Circuit Court of Baltimore in "desperate, desperate" shape -- on the verge of releasing accused felons who have awaited trial beyond the 180-day "speedy trial" limit, the court's chief judge said yesterday.

"We're in crisis. We are almost at gridlock," Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. He pleaded for four additional judges to handle the crush of drug-related criminal cases and more than 12,000 asbestos poisoning civil matters pending in his 26-judge court.

No one has been released under the 180-day rule, Judge Kaplan said, but many have been awaiting trial for 150 days, a mere month short of the deadline.

As many as 250 defendants are added to the list of those awaiting trial in the city every day, he said.

Meanwhile, he said, 12,000 Marylanders with claims of job-related asbestos poisoning have been relegated to "fourth-class" status. Civil cases have no speedy trial deadline. Some 800 to 900 lead paint poisoning cases, dozens of domestic abuse cases and others are also in the lengthening line.

Judge Kaplan's testimony put him in conflict with his boss, Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy of the Maryland Court of Appeals, who decided not to ask for more judges this year. A representative of Judge Murphy, Frank Broccolina, deputy state court administrator, said Judge Murphy opposes the bill.

A "balance is needed between justice and the tax dollars available," Mr. Broccolina said.

Each year, Judge Murphy reviews statistics on caseloads in all the Maryland Circuit Courts and "certifies" need. Mr. Broccolina said that this year, Judge Murphy found that two more judges were needed, one to be shared by Baltimore City and Baltimore County and one for Anne Arundel County. He did not ask the governor to provide money in his budget.

When the asbestos cases are ready to be heard, Mr. Broccolina told the committee, Judge Murphy will make five or six retired judges available to hear them or criminal cases. Any suggestion that the judge is not concerned about Baltimore's problem is false, he said.

According to one of the bill's proponents, Patti Kasputys, a lawyer in the Baltimore firm of Peter Angelos, the cost of adding four judges would total about $800,000 per year, including a $93,000 salary and administrative costs of about $100,000 for each new judge. About half the money would come from the city, half from the state.

Ms. Kasputys and Judge Kaplan said the asbestos cases have been languishing on court dockets for years. They remain unsettled because of "inadequate judicial resources," Ms. Kasputys said, despite the state constitution's declaration of rights, which guarantees "access to the courts speedily and without delay."

Judge Kaplan said he has all but despaired of finding relief. Even the city of Baltimore opposes his request because it does not have money to pay its share.

Pub Date: 3/08/96

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