Heller to oversee city Circuit Court

Lifelong Baltimorean given high marks for work on civil cases

July 28, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Maryland's chief judge has named Judge Ellen M. Heller to supervise Baltimore's chaotic Circuit Court amid hopes she will steer reform of the state's busiest courthouse.

Heller's rise to administrative judge comes after Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan decided to step down during a crisis so serious that top state officials said it threatened public safety and undermined the community's confidence in its criminal justice system.

A lifelong Baltimore resident, Heller is credited with eliminating a 4,500-case backlog as chief of the Circuit Court civil docket.

When she assumes Kaplan's post Sept. 20, she will supervise the Circuit Court's 30 criminal, civil and juvenile judges in the city.

Heller, 59, vowed yesterday to streamline how criminal cases are handled at the courthouse. The docket has been troubled by chronic trial delays and persistent problems with the exchange of evidence, leading to a wrongful conviction and dismissals of serious charges -- including first-degree murder.

"I have great confidence that we are going to quickly address the problems," Heller said. "I think within a few months, people who have a criminal case in Baltimore City will know that they will have a timely and fair -- and I emphasize `fair' -- resolution of that case."

Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell said Heller "revolutionized" the city's civil docket, and he called himself and others "fortunate" that she accepted the job.

"It used to take over two years to get a civil case to trial," Bell said in a statement announcing her appointment. "Now most cases are heard within a year of filing. As a result of Judge Heller's leadership, the civil litigation process in Baltimore has been revolutionized."

The chief of the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, formed after suspects were set free because of trial delays, said yesterday he was "delighted" by the appointment. "She has the respect of the bench and the bar ," said John H. Lewin Jr.

Kaplan's departure

Kaplan told The Sun last week that he planned to announce his resignation on his 15th anniversary as administrative judge, in part because he believed his power to lead reforms had been undercut. Kaplan has been all but stripped of oversight of the criminal court calendar since the courthouse crisis became public in January.

Bell -- who has had a tense relationship with Kaplan for years -- forced him into resigning, sources said. Kaplan's departure comes as little surprise to other judges and those familiar with the inner workings of the courthouse.

Kaplan's expected successor was long believed to be Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, who has been supervising the criminal docket since last December and has received praise from legislators for recent reforms. But Mitchell said he was not interested in the top judicial post. Legislators urged Bell to appoint someone who could restore confidence in the city's criminal justice system.

Yesterday, Mitchell said Heller has asked him to stay on as head of the criminal docket for longer than his commitment of a year. He agreed.

Heller, who began her political and legal career as a community activist, said she will work closely with Mitchell and other members of the coordinating council to reform the court system. Some reforms, such as a crackdown on trial delays, have been put in place.

Other reforms under consideration include placing criminal cases on schedules depending on their seriousness, establishing pre-trial conferences, and setting firm deadlines for exchanges of evidence between prosecutors and defense lawyers.

Heller has been working on the civil side of the courthouse for the past decade. In 1990, she said, 4,500 civil cases were ready for trial, but none had a trial date. With others, she crafted a plan to eliminate the backlog and move cases through the system more quickly. Within a year, she said, all those cases had been resolved.

The key to the success was holding a mandatory settlement conference 30 days before a trial. Because there were too few judges to preside over the conferences, attorneys were brought in from city law firms to serve as volunteer mediators. Almost 10 years later, the program remains in place.

In the public arena

Heller entered the public arena in the 1970s, when she was a wife and mother of two sons living in the Cross Country neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore. She co-founded and then led the Cross Country Improvement Association. She later decided to pursue a legal degree, graduating in 1977 from the University of Maryland's law school with honors.

She immediately went to work for the attorney general's office, rising to become principal counsel to the Maryland Department of Education. Her first husband, Dr. Richard H. Heller, a genetics expert at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, died in 1982.

Four years later, Heller was appointed to the Baltimore bench by Gov. Harry R. Hughes. She replaced Judge Solomon Baylor, who had retired.

Heller and her second husband, Shale D. Stiller, a lawyer with Piper & Marbury who sits on the board of the Weinberg Foundation, remain active in the community and in international causes. She is on the board of directors of Girl Scouts of Central Maryland and serves on the executive committee of the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Pub Date: 7/28/99

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