A landmark for justice 25 years: Establishment of district court system vastly improved Maryland judiciary.

July 05, 1996

AQUARTER-CENTURY ago, in many parts of Maryland, paying a traffic ticket was a sure sign that you had no political connections. The appointments of the magistrates who presided over such matters were controlled by politicians. Those magistrates who failed to defer sufficiently to political pressures usually saw their appointments go to someone else at the end of their two-year terms.

Marylanders take for granted the impartial justice dispensed in the District Courts, which began operation 25 years ago today. But in 1971, those courts faced a daunting challenge. Justice at that level had long been dominated by politics and tainted by petty corruption.

The reforms that changed those lax attitudes were shored up by strong judicial leadership and the appointment of competent judges who understood that dispensing impartial justice was a far higher calling than tracking the political winds. As a result, if you get a ticket in Maryland these days, you should not expect "connections" to get you off the hook.

Ticket-fixing may seem a relatively harmless bending of the rules. But that is precisely the kind of petty infraction that signals the likely presence of more corruption. The District Court system has been remarkably free of scandal. That's a major reason why Maryland's Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy likes to describe these courts as "the greatest judicial reform in Maryland in this century."

The establishment of a statewide District Court system was proposed in 1967 as part of a new state constitution that failed to win voters' ratification. Later, Gov. Marvin Mandel rescued the idea. He pushed a constitutional amendment through a reluctant legislature, which then was approved by the electorate.

The District Courts replaced the tattered and discredited Trial Magistrate Courts, as well as the People's Courts and other courts that had been established as reforms. From misdemeanors and motor vehicle cases to minor criminal cases, the District Courts have brought order, stability, competence and integrity to a level of justice that often gets less attention than courts dealing with more serious crimes.

This year is a milestone for the District Courts in more ways than one. Robert F. Sweeney, who has served as chief judge of the District Courts since they were established, will be retiring in September. His successor, to be named by Chief Judge Murphy, has a ready challenge -- to continue a strong legacy of impartial, competent justice.

Pub Date: 7/05/96

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