Crisis situation only gets worse

The Political Game

Judiciary: Three years ago, Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan warned of Circuit Court chaos. His prediction has come all too true.

February 09, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

HE TOLD US SO.

Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan of the Circuit Court gave fair warning of the current chaos in the Baltimore courts.

Three years ago.

"We're in crisis," the court's chief administrative judge told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on March 7, 1996. "We are almost at gridlock."

Today, gridlock is one of the kinder characterizations. Kaplan warned legislators that a torrent of criminal and civil cases had left his courts in "desperate, desperate" shape -- on the verge of releasing accused felons who have awaited trial beyond the 180-day "speedy trial" limit.

Kaplan's prediction has come true. The situation apparently was worse than he suggested. He pleaded with legislators to approve four additional judges to handle the crush of drug-related criminal cases and more than 12,000 asbestos-poisoning civil matters pending before his 26-judge court.

The politics of the request were scintillating then and now.

Kaplan, it was said, spoke frankly because his supervisor, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, was retiring. Otherwise, Kaplan might have felt obliged to keep silent.

Frank V. Broccolina, deputy state court administrator and a Murphy representative, said Murphy opposed the four new judges bill because a "balance is needed between justice and the tax dollars available."

Fair enough. Other observers pointed out that Baltimore, always strapped for cash, was opposing the bills, too, because it did not have the money to pay its share of the costs -- as much as $93,000 per judge.

In the end, the state provided two of the requested judges and put the other two in the pipeline.

Additional judges are not the only thing the system needs -- and someone must mediate between the public's ability to pay and the demands of the criminal justice system. Murphy was probably as good as any at balancing the politics and the pragmatism of adding new judges. Kaplan's view three years ago, however, was the more accurate one. No one was listening to him.

The legislature's decision to grant what now seems a modest request might have been done only because it had additional impetus. Orioles owner and plaintiff's lawyer, Peter G. Angelos, wanted the bill, too, arguing that more help was needed to hear the 12,000 cases arising from asbestos exposure. The Orioles owner's influence may have been as important in the final decision as Kaplan's warning.

Privately, a frustrated Kaplan now says, "I've done everything in my power. Everyone wants us to do miracles."

And the winner is Duncan, by a knockout

Since November's gubernatorial election -- when he exerted himself to re-elect Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has been crying foul.

Glendening, Duncan said, was reneging on a campaign promise. He was not coming through with $1.7 million in state aid needed to reduce class size in Montgomery schools. Some said Duncan was getting a bit shrill, but he persisted.

Last week, Glendening forked over the money. Those who attended the event where the governor's concession was offered say the governor thanked everyone in the room but Duncan.

The whole episode left the prognosticators wondering: Why had Glendening allowed himself to be in a position where he capitulated to Duncan -- particularly when he would ultimately say Duncan was right?

Among the leading answers to that question: The governor could not have Duncan bashing Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for shortchanging schools in populous, wealthy Montgomery where schools matter more than brie and Perrier.

How could Glendening be the education governor if he didn't relieve crowding -- particularly promising to send help? If he didn't come up with the money, wouldn't he hurt Townsend in her quest for the gubernatorial nomination in 2002?

Duncan's victory could lead to more pressure on Glendening from others who want his support. Public pressure, this situation might show again, is the way to prevail.

Billings bill proposes city-county merger

Not the best of political friends, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Montgomery County Del. Leon G. Billings would like to see Baltimore with a wider economic and political base. Billings has filed a bill that would do that.

The measure would require a constitutional amendment.

Taylor's support of the concept has grown increasingly vocal. Baltimore needs to be part of a wider, more economically diverse metropolitan region. Most major cities have a far larger "footprint" or geographic size -- and a more substantial tax base to give them more of an opportunity to be self-sustaining.

Urban scholar David Rusk says Baltimore County would profit from a merger as much as the city would -- because both jurisdictions would expand their influence in the General Assembly. The city's urban problems, he adds, have merged with the county's.

But don't expect ringing endorsements of the measure from Baltimore County legislators.

Pub Date: 2/09/99

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