Courts panel wants to end judge election Challengers could not run against governor's circuit appointees

Study took more than a year

Commission also seeks to unify judiciary, have state take over costs

November 16, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Ten days after a Howard County judge lost her seat on the bench in a close and controversial election, a state commission has recommended ending the practice of allowing challengers to run against incumbent circuit judges in primary and general elections.

That recommendation was one of a host of proposals adopted yesterday by the Commission on the Future of Maryland Courts, a 31-member board that spent more than a year studying the state's judiciary.

In its final report, the commission recommended unifying the Circuit Courts in Baltimore City and the 23 counties -- the courts that handle most major civil and serious criminal cases in each subdivision.

The courts would be managed by one administrative judge, as the lower District Courts are.

The commission also suggested that the state eventually assume all Circuit Court costs instead of the 60-40 split the state now shares with local governments. That change is considered particularly vital for financially strapped Baltimore.

Attorney James J. Cromwell, chairman of the commission, said members found it "troublesome" to see lawyers and wealthy litigants give money to judges campaigning in contested elections.

In Howard County, the first black appointee to the county's Circuit Court lost this month's election in a four-way race for two seats.

Instead of running for election to a 15-year term, the commission recommended that Circuit Court nominees first face state Senate confirmation and then appear on the ballot for approval.

At the end of a 14-year term, an unspecified committee would evaluate the judge's performance, and its report would be available to the public.

The commission's other recommendations include:

Abolishing Orphans Courts, which have elected judges, and transferring the courts' functions of overseeing estate settlements and some guardianship decisions to Circuit Courts, where they would be handled administratively.

Discontinuing the election of registers of wills and Circuit Court clerks so that the jobs would be awarded on merit.

Decriminalizing nonjailable traffic offenses so that a court master or administrative hearing officer, rather than district judges, could handle such matters as parking ticket fines.

Having only six jurors decide misdemeanor cases instead of 12. The commission also wants jurors selected not only from voter rolls but from a list of licensed drivers, too.

Limiting jury duty to one day or one trial. Some Maryland circuits, including Baltimore City and Baltimore County, already do this, but many others require longer duty.

Creating a family division within larger Circuit Courts to coordinate family-related and juvenile cases.

Many of the commission's recommendations are intended to make the courts more efficient.

Cromwell predicted that without changes, the judiciary risks "gridlock" from the rising caseload.

In the past 20 years, the number of annual Circuit Court filings has increased from 133,000 to 262,000.

The number of hearings has ballooned nearly tenfold, from 27,000 to 267,000 over the same period, the report notes.

"This is the way things should go in the future if we are to avoid gridlock," Cromwell said. "We have to begin the process of remedying the problems now."

Most of the court reforms would require General Assembly approval to be enacted.

If passed by the legislature, some would require amendments to the Maryland Constitution that would be subject to the approval of voters in 1998.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, one of five judges on the commission, predicted that the unification of the Circuit Courts and having the state assume the full cost would be the commission's most important reforms, if approved.

"It's going to be important for all the jurisdictions as the counties TC feel the budget pinch and the courts are not a high priority for them," Kaplan said. "Poorer jurisdictions will not be the only ones who can't keep up. Even the wealthier ones will be hard pressed to do it."

Pub Date: 11/16/96

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