Addition of four city judgeships approved Assembly makes move to help judicial system try asbestos lawsuits

April 06, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff

Responding to a lobbying effort organized on behalf of Orioles owner and multimillionaire attorney Peter G. Angelos, the Maryland General Assembly broke with years of tradition yesterday and approved four new Baltimore judgeships to help try thousands of his asbestos lawsuits.

In passing the bill by a vote of 93 to 45, the House of Delegates seemed to agree with Mr. Angelos and Baltimore's chief Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, who argued that the city judicial system is overwhelmed.

By backing the measure, the legislature went against the will of ++ the state's highest-ranking judge, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, Robert C. Murphy.

Judge Murphy has said he opposes adding judges to Baltimore, in part, because it gives the appearance of political favoritism. Until this week, Judge Murphy's recommendations on judgeships had guided the General Assembly for most of the past 17 years.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday that he plans to sign the bill, which the Senate overwhelmingly passed last week.

Proponents say the measure will help bring justice to thousands of asbestos victims and their families whose suits have lingered in city courts for years. They say the judges will help clear 800 to 900 pending lead-paint suits and the load of criminal cases clogging Baltimore's justice system.

"We do have an extreme situation where we are very close to letting people out [of jail] because of the case load," House Majority Leader John Adams Hurson, D-Montgomery, said during yesterday's floor debate.

Opponents see the measure as an extraordinary piece of special interest legislation. It is a bill, they say, that creates judgeships for a wealthy political campaign contributor who stands to profit from having his cases resolved.

"When have we ever had privately paid lobbyists lobbying for judges?" asked Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican. "I think this is a dangerous precedent to make for a person who is powerful and well-connected."

Mr. Angelos has made a fortune as a plaintiff's lawyer, handling ++ lawsuits for people who have suffered from exposure to asbestos. Currently, about 12,000 such cases are sitting in the city court system, which has only 26 circuit judges.

The judges bill has attracted attention this legislative session because of Mr. Angelos' prominence and the heavy lobbying effort he has mounted.

Last week, one of his lobbyists, Alan M. Rifkin, invited members of the House Judiciary Committee to dinner at an Annapolis restaurant to discuss the issue, among other things. Mr. Angelos attended. Judiciary member Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, a Montgomery Democrat, described the pitch on the bill as an unusually "hard-sell."

Another reason the legislature passed the bill is because Judge Murphy is retiring in the fall.

Since 1978, the General Assembly has -- with one exception -- followed Judge Murphy's recommendations for creating judgeships based on a statistical analysis of the needs around the state. Testifying before the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Judge Murphy said the recommendation system was instituted to keep politics out of the process.

"The thing I'm concerned about is re-introducing logrolling into the General Assembly," Judge Murphy said.

Judge Murphy said he thought the city court system could go one more year without new judges and that some of the asbestos cases could be resolved by moving them to courts in neighboring counties.

At the same hearing, though, Judge Kaplan argued that the situation in Baltimore was desperate, noting some criminal cases were coming close to being dismissed for lack of a speedy trial.

Pub Date: 4/06/96

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