More judges needed to handle family cases, Bell tells Assembly

January 25, 2001|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Maryland needs 21 new judges to handle growing caseloads, particularly those involving family disputes, the state's chief judge told the General Assembly yesterday.

Delivering a State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the legislature, Chief Judge Robert M. Bell said he would also seek a legal change to make it easier for victims of domestic abuse to obtain civil protective orders against their assailants.

On fiscal matters, the judiciary is seeking a 28 percent increase in its budget for next year - an unusually large request - to $310 million. Under the state constitution, the governor is obligated to include that level of funding in his proposed budget, although the legislature can cut it.

Much of the money would pay for the 21 new judgeships Bell is seeking. Topping that list is a request for 12 circuit judges to handle family court matters.

Bell is also seeking four circuit judges to handle juvenile matters in Montgomery County and five new District Court seats.

Legislators have not been briefed on the details of Bell's proposal, but some are already skeptical about the need for so many new judges. "On first blush, it would appear to be excessive in number," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Bell told lawmakers he is backing a proposal advanced by Judge Martha F. Rasin, chief judge of the state's District Court, to allow court commissioners to issue restraining orders in domestic-violence disputes when judges are off duty.

The proposal would give victims of abuse a chance to obtain such orders quickly, rather than waiting for a judge to be available. Commissioners are on duty around the clock in Maryland.

"There's been a lot of concern in the advocate community and among representatives of victims to make some sort of protective order available on a 24-hour-a-day basis," Rasin said.

The proposal, which would amend the state constitution, would have to go to voters in a referendum next year if it clears the Assembly.

Bell is also calling for the state to continue assuming more of the costs of running Maryland's Circuit Court system, costs shared by state and local governments. He is proposing that the state begin picking up the cost of law clerks' salaries and the leasing of courthouse space for local clerks of the court - two items that will cost an estimated $13.3 million next year.

In Annapolis

Today's highlights

10 a.m. Senate meets, Senate chamber.

10 a.m. House of Delegates meets, House chamber.

10:30 a.m. House Judiciary Committee, briefing on state Division of Parole and Probation, Room 120, Lowe House Office Building.

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