Overhaul of state judiciary sought Commission sees need to consolidate Md. circuit courts

Full state funding called for

Uncontested elections for judges likely to be controversial

July 07, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Maryland's 24 circuit courts would become one, judges would avoid the ordeal of contested elections and the state would pick up the full tab for the courts under sweeping proposals being prepared by a commission studying the state's judicial system.

The final report of the Commission on the Future of Maryland Courts will not be written until fall, but a series of straw votes taken at a meeting last month showed a consensus among panel members for radical changes in the circuit court system.

In Maryland, circuit courts are the workhorse of the judiciary, hearing all serious criminal and civil cases, and less serious cases appealed from district courts.

The panel's recommendations could form the basis for comprehensive court reform legislation in next year's General Assembly.

But the direction the commission is taking indicates its agenda could spark bitter opposition from defenders of the status quo.

Del. Mary Louise Preis, a Harford County Democrat who led the effort to create the commission and now sits on it, said the courts have serious problems that are getting worse.

"I'm convinced something's going to happen. There's a lot of problems out there where people meet the court system," she said.

"When I hear 'It ain't broke, don't fix it,' I just gulp. Some things work well, but some things are broke."

To make the kind of fixes it wants, the commission will have to overcome the almost certain opposition of many entrenched interests.

One of the most controversial recommendations it will apparently adopt is to turn such elective offices as court clerk, register of wills and orphans court judge into appointive positions.

The commission, created by the General Assembly in the waning minutes of its 1995 session, brings together influential members of all three branches of Maryland's government.

Albert Winchester III, the commission's staff director, said that approach was suggested by the state bar association in the hope that the panel's report would be given more weight than some past studies of the court system.

The commission, which will hold public hearings in Annapolis July 18 and 19, signaled its basic policy directions during a spirited meeting last month.

Its committees sought, and for the most part received, approval for a series of broad recommendations that are certain to ruffle feathers across the state.

The commission is required to report to the governor and General Assembly leaders by Dec. 15.

Within the legal system, the most explosive recommendation is the proposal to form a consolidated Circuit Court of Maryland, overseen by a chief judge, with units in each of the state's 23 counties and Baltimore City.

Each jurisdiction would have an administrative judge who would report to the chief judge.

Such a change would strike at the heart of the autonomy cherished by many circuit judges, who now enjoy a system governed by consensus and local custom rather than clear lines of authority.

The consolidation would also make it easier to shift judges from county to county to help with crowded dockets in busier jurisdictions -- an unpopular notion with many judges.

"I suspect a majority of them probably do not favor this approach," said Court of Special Appeals Chief Judge Alan M. Wilner, an advocate of restructuring.

Wilner argued that while the commission needs to be sensitive to "political realities," its primary task is to design a court system for the 21st century.

Another controversial change sought by the commission is full state funding for the operations of the circuit court system, which now receives 40 percent of its money from local government.

"Increasingly, local governments throughout the state are proving reluctant to provide the increased funds needed to operate the circuit courts efficiently," said a committee report.

That recommendation, adopted by a decisive margin in a straw vote, set off alarms among some of the legislators on the commission. "My concern is where are we getting the money from," said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat.

The commission could also face a fight over its plan to recommend an end to contested judicial elections, which it would replace with a yes-or-no vote on retaining a judge whose term is expiring.

The judiciary's traditional distaste for having to campaign to stay on the bench has been heightened this year by a messy fight in Howard County, where two appointees of Gov. Parris N. Glendening are being challenged on the Republican line by two candidates the governor passed over.

While legislators on the panel are sympathetic to the judges' concern, some also worry that eliminating contested elections would frustrate efforts to bring greater diversity to the bench -- until recently a bastion of white male judges appointed by white male governors.

The commission is expected to recommend other changes, including higher filing fees, establishing a family division within the circuit court and adopting strong incentives to employ alternative means of resolving disputes.

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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