Court short three judges

Vacancies likely to remain through Assembly session

`It's a real concern'

Lawyers worried about understaffing of circuit bench

January 04, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The state's fifth-largest Circuit Court starts the new year without nearly one-third of its bench, and prospects for returning the court to its 10-judge complement in the next several months appear unlikely, worrying the court administrator and many lawyers.

In at least 14 years, the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court has not had more than one vacancy at a time.

Now it has three, and although retired judges are filling in, the vacancies are expected to persist into the spring because governors traditionally do not make judicial appointments during the 90-day General Assembly session.

"I'm not panicked. But clearly, potentially, it's going to put us in a real hole. It's a real concern," said Court Administrator Robert G. Wallace.

"Will we get through it?" Wallace asked. "Yes. Will things be moving as well? Probably not."

Improvements in managing divorce cases and other civil cases have enabled the court to run more smoothly. Few hearings are postponed because no judge is available. At times a few years ago, as many as a dozen cases a day were turned away for that reason.

Although this is a slow time of year, lawyers are dreading going to court in the next few months and seeing their cases set before Judge Unassigned.

"It's going to have a serious effect, but I am not sure how serious," said Martin B. Lessans, a lawyer who specializes in family law. "It's gotten everybody worried. There's not just not enough judges to go around. We've got a busy courthouse."

Sally W. Rankin, spokeswoman for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said that of the 143 circuit judge positions in Maryland, 16 vacancies will occur by mid-April, including four in Baltimore County and four in Montgomery County. Three of the four vacancies in Montgomery County are newly created positions, she said.

Baltimore County will lose Judge Robert E. Cahill Sr. when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70 this month and Judge J. William Hinkel when he turns 70 in April.

The state's circuit judges earn $119,600 a year.

In Anne Arundel, about 20,000 new and reopened cases kept the court bustling in the 1999-2000 fiscal year, the most recent year for which figures have been compiled.

Attorneys said they fear delays, especially in trials in which expert witnesses typically are lined up weeks in advance for a certain day. They also worry that clients might agree to less-favorable settlement terms because of uncertainty in the court.

Lawyers who handle criminal cases are not concerned because statutory and constitutional speedy-trial guarantees keep their cases moving.

"On the assumption that we need all the judges that we have, and you take away 30 percent of the judges, it could have a huge effect," said lawyer and mediator Ronald M. Naditch.

He said judges have been trying lately to curb the amount of trial time for issues that have not been settled in civil cases.

"They say, `How much time do you need to try the case?' And you say, `A day.' And they say, `Well, can't you try it in half a day.' And you say, `Well, no.' And you leave with the judge saying half a day," Naditch said.

The vacancies began in November with the departure of Judge James C. Cawood Jr. , who joined a private practice in Annapolis. Judge Eugene M. Lerner's reached the mandatory retirement age last month.

Also last month, Glendening elevated to the Court of Special Appeals Judge Clayton Greene Jr., the Circuit Court's only black judge, who served as administrative judge for Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll courts.

The judicial nominating commission will consider the 20 applicants for the vacancies created by the departures of Lerner and Cawood at a meeting Jan. 11, two days after the legislative session opens.

The Greene vacancy has not been posted, though he will be sworn in today. The pool of candidates for Greene's slot will include applicants for the other openings.

The Circuit Court losses have occurred in the months after statewide time standards for handling cases took effect and as the Anne Arundel court prepares to add a juvenile drug court in a few weeks, with a judge, not a juvenile master, at the helm.

The Circuit Court will rely heavily on two judicial workhorses, Lerner, who retired in mid-December but has yet to leave, and Raymond G. Thieme Jr., a retired Circuit Court and Court of Special Appeals judge who has heard cases in retirement for the latter court for the past year. Other judges, such as retired Circuit Judge Martin A. Wolff, are taking cases, too.

Retired judges returning to the bench can earn up to one-third of their former salaries - judges continue to receive two-thirds of their salaries when they retire - but any days they choose to sit beyond about one-third of a year are unpaid.

Glendening has broken occasionally with the tradition of not making judicial appointments during the legislative session "in extraordinary circumstances," said his spokesman Mike Morrill.

"Except for circumstances that would affect the functioning of the court, it is extremely unlikely that an appointment will be made during the session," Morrill said.

Word from the legislative delegation and court would signal to the governor that the court needs help soon. Del. Mary Ann Love, a Glen Burnie Democrat who is chairman of the county's House delegation, said she would consider asking Glendening for mid-session appointments if the court wants that.

Wallace has spoken with two delegates to lobby for such appointments and has offered to attend a delegation meeting.

Sun staff writer Dennis O'Brien contributed to this article.

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