Civil cases piling up in Carroll Circuit Court Legal conflicts soar as population grows

December 29, 1998|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

As people move into Carroll County, they bring with them all the civil and uncivil situations that can land on the courthouse docket.

Carroll ranks first in the state in the number of residents for each of its three Circuit Court judges, according to a report to the General Assembly last month by Maryland's top judge, Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of the Court of Appeals.

As a result of the county's growing population, lawsuits are getting trial dates into 2000, said Raymond E. Beck Sr., administrative judge of the Circuit Court. "My docket is full for 1999," he said.

The county has reached a population it wasn't projected to have until 2010, "and with that population growth comes all the legal problems: from mortgages to contractors' disputes, divorces, criminal cases, children in need of supervision -- all across the board," Beck said.

"The new filings reflect the changing demographics, the population increases," he said.

The county probably will need a fourth judge sooner than expected, said Beck, a former state senator appointed to the bench in 1989 when a third Circuit Court judgeship was created for Carroll.

"Carroll County will definitely need a fourth judge by 2001," Beck said. "We'll be bursting at the seams."

Judgeships in Maryland are created according to a formula that includes population and caseloads -- and officials at almost any busy courthouse in the state would say they need another full-time judge.

The state Administrative Office of the Courts said Bell's Nov. 16 report to the General Assembly for the coming fiscal year (1999-2000) includes as Exhibit A-1 a Circuit Courts analysis that says in part: "Carroll County is one of the fastest growing areas in the state with a July 1, 1999, projected population of 153,000. Carroll County has experienced a 58.8 percent increase since 1980.

"During Fiscal Year 1998, Carroll County ranked first in population per judge [51,000 residents]."

Despite the county's growth, Carroll officials have not formally asked the state for another judgeship. Bell requested several judges in counties where the need is most pressing.

In the report -- a certification of need for additional judgeships -- Bell said there should be seven new Circuit Court judges (one each for Allegany, Calvert, Charles, Frederick and Worcester counties, and two for Washington County), and four new District Court judges (in Frederick, Montgomery, St. Mary's and Prince George's counties).

This year, Bell asked the legislature for only two new District Court judges, for Frederick and Prince George's counties.

The courts' statewide needs are being met for now, he said in the report, with the services of retired judges and the state's continued support for contractual masters' services.

The masters are lawyers who serve a quasi-judicial function, usually attempting to resolve cases without the need for trial.

About 30 attorneys serve as masters in Carroll, handling settlement conferences for civil cases and resolving 55 to 60 percent of them before trial, easing court congestion, said Larry W. Shipley, clerk of the Circuit Court.

Visiting judges have also stepped into the county's courtrooms to keep things moving.

In addition, a differentiated case-management system helps to jTC avoid civil logjams, Shipley said, but "it's a very complicated scheme."

Every lawsuit is assessed as it comes in and ranked according to complexity, with an eye to the amount of court time required, he explained. Once the parties have filed their initial answers in the case, a scheduling order sets dates for the exchange of information and settlement conferences.

If the master's attempt to reach a settlement fails, Shipley said, a trial date is set. Many cases settle on the eve of trial or in mid-trial.

"Only 5 to 6 percent ever go to trial," Shipley said.

His office is scheduling lawsuits into 2000 for Beck and Circuit Judge Francis M. Arnold, Shipley said. Cases for Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. are being set for summer.

Civil cases filed in 1997 and 1998 outnumber criminal cases by about 3-to-1, he said, up from a ratio of about 2-to-1 in 1995.

Through the middle of this month, 2,266 civil cases had been filed, compared with 751 criminal cases. Criminal cases must be scheduled more quickly because of state and constitutional guarantees of the right to a speedy trial, meaning that civil trials often lag behind, Beck said.

The situation could worsen in June, when Arnold reaches the state's mandatory retirement age of 70. Arnold was elevated from the District Court to the Circuit Court in 1990.

The three Circuit Court judges rotate, taking the civil docket every third month. Arnold has had the civil docket for the past month, and he agreed that the civil side seems to be expanding.

"I don't know about the numbers," he said. "But I think they're more time-consuming, more complex.

"My problem this fall has been long civil trials. In October and November, I had two medical malpractice cases that lasted two weeks."

This month brought another malpractice case and a three-week lawsuit stemming from an automobile accident.

With those trials completed nearly two weeks ago, Arnold said he and his law clerk went back to sifting through "about 100 cases stacked here on my sofa" to handle pending legal motions and other business.

Pub Date: 12/29/98

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