Reformers are trying again to save the courts from the likes of us

July 11, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- There they go again!

As happens once every political generation, a swarm of busybodies, dreamers and power-hungry opportunists is arising from the Maryland soil like a hatch of 17-year-locusts, buzzing the old familiar buzz: Overhaul the courts! The usual blue-ribbon commission is getting ready to unload a new version of the old message, probably sometime this fall.

The commission's earnest recommendations, while still unwritten, have already been telegraphed. As a first order of business, they promise to include elimination of any chance that a candidate unapproved by the legal and political establishment can run for and win a judgeship in Maryland.

In a further -- and also quite traditional -- assault on democracy, they may additionally include abolishing the elected courthouse positions of register of wills, clerk of court and orphans-court judge.

They will urge even tighter state control over the trial courts in Baltimore and the 23 counties. This would be done by administrative changes and, using the ultimate lever, through the budget. Counties, which now pay 40 percent of the operating costs of their courts, would be ''relieved'' of that obligation, and in the process forfeit any local control whatsoever.

All of this is justified, as it always is and probably always will be, as a long-overdue effort to ''modernize,'' to ''take politics out of the courts,'' and to bring about ''administrative efficiency.'' College professors, lawyers' organizations and the editorial pages of big newspapers can be expected to hammer away in unison at this tedious theme.

Instinctively suspicious

If most ordinary Marylanders are instinctively suspicious of this sort of medicine show, they have good reason to be. It's a deliberate effort by self-styled elites to cut them entirely out of the process of selecting and administering the judicial branch of their state government. And if it succeeds, they'll be the ones expected to pay for it.

This isn't to suggest that the Maryland court system can't be improved. Of course it can. Neither the legislature nor the public is averse to making changes for which a need has been documented, and the courts have been both expanded and improved over the years.

But despite the best efforts of lawyers and judges over the past several decades to eliminate all judicial elections, Marylanders have always insisted on the right to elect their local circuit-court judges. They don't seek to exercise that right often; few judges are ever seriously challeged, let alone defeated. But it's a basic democratic right they value, and they have strongly resisted these repeated efforts to take it away.

Doesn't anybody around here remember the proposed new Maryland constitution of 1968? It was drafted by elected delegates sitting in convention in Annapolis, but it was controlled by the same old interests and came up with the same old ideas -- no more elected judges, no more elected court clerks, and so on and so forth, blah blah blah.

It lost badly at the polls. And, in a footnote Governor Glendening might find particularly interesting as he ponders whether or not to support the latest proposed reforms, it lost every county in the state except for Montgomery and Prince George's. It even lost Baltimore city.

Jim Crow barriers

The Baltimore of 1968 differed from the Schmoke-and-Glendening Baltimore of today in several important ways. For one thing, back in 1968, some real Baltimore judicial reformers had only just finished using the election process to smash the Jim Crow barriers of what had been an all-white judiciary.

Elections gave a predominantly black city its first black circuit court judge. Is it any wonder that black voters of that day looked askance at the sudden interest of the legal elites in making sure that all judges would be appointed?

After the results of the 1968 vote on the proposed constitution were in, wise newspaper analysts -- at the time I considered myself one of them -- explained that out in the counties, the political clout of elected registers of wills and clerks of court had been mobilized to defeat these wonderful reforms.

In retrospect, that was a hoot. Many if not most of the people who voted against the document probably hadn't a clue who their court clerk was, even if they'd been voting for her for years. But they didn't like being told that their judgment was considered inferior to some faceless appointing authority, judicial or otherwise.

Overhaul the courts? Sure. But Marylanders like to do that sort of thing at their own speed, in their own way. That's why the 1996 version of the 1968 fiasco, whenever it gets here, is likely to be dead on arrival.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 7/11/96

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