Challenges for state courts Commission report: Recommendations take comprehensive look at needs of state judiciary.

November 22, 1996

THE COMMISSION on the Future of Maryland's Courts didn't have a crystal ball to gaze into. But then it didn't need one, considering that the major trends affecting the courts are all too evident. Both the volume and variety of cases confronting Maryland's judges have increased dramatically in the past couple of decades.

Meanwhile, courthouses face physical and operational challenges in providing access to the disabled, interpreters for non-English speakers, child care for those involved in or attending trials and non-public waiting areas for crime victims. The commission cited all these needs, without saying who will champion them.

To no one's surprise, the commission strongly recommended a better way of retaining Circuit Court judges than subjecting them to contested elections. It suggests circuit judges run on their records as appellate judges do. Voters unhappy with judges' performances could turn them out, but not because an untested opponent raised more money and waged a more aggressive political campaign.

This recommendation is not new and has long stirred controversy. Minority groups argue that contested elections may be their best chance for a judgeship. As the judicial nominating process casts a wider net for qualified candidates, that should be less a consideration than before. Additionally, what happened this month in Howard County, where an African-American Circuit Court judge was defeated at the polls, should give minority groups pause about the virtues of judicial elections.

The commission has suggested some sweeteners -- such as an evaluation system for judges to be implemented only if contested elections are abolished. The evaluation results would assist voters in making decisions in retention elections, as well as the governor and the state Senate in making decisions about renominating and approving judges when their terms expire. It would also help court administrators design useful training sessions for judges.

For those concerned with the quality and integrity of justice in Maryland, that trade-off is a sensible accommodation.

Pub Date: 11/22/96

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