Shortage of judges strains District Court

Vacant seat, surgery leave long hours for three left on bench

Howard County

March 29, 2002|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

On any given day in Howard County District Court, two of the building's five courtrooms are dark.

With one judicial vacancy because of promotion and one of the county's judges out indefinitely while he recovers from surgery, three judges have been crowding the work of five into their daily routine during the past several weeks.

The judges are seeing doubled-up dockets - at times handling traffic and criminal cases in the same courtroom - shorter breaks and trials that run into the dinner hour.

"It's made it a longer day," said public defender Carol A. Hanson. "I do think the judges are doing everything possible. But it's three judges doing five judges' work. You do the math."

Lawyers and court officials say the three judges - Neil Edward Axel, Alice Gail Pollard Clark and Louis A. Becker - are making every effort to work their way through the dockets and keep cases from being postponed.

They say they hope relief arrives soon: that Judge C. James Sfekas, who has been out since having surgery last month, will be able to return and that Gov. Parris N. Glendening soon will fill the 6-month-old judicial vacancy created by James N. Vaughan's promotion.

The governor interviewed the five nominees for Vaughan's spot yesterday.

"Hopefully, it's temporary," said District 10 Administrative Judge JoAnn Ellinghaus-Jones of Carroll County. The district includes Howard and Carroll counties.

Howard County has not been in such a tight judicial situation since 1996, when the then-four-judge courthouse was reduced to two after the retirement of R. Russell Sadler and the election of Lenore R. Gelfman to Circuit Court.

The resulting shortage was noted in a decision by the state's highest court to throw out a 1997 drunken-driving conviction in a case that took more than a year to be tried. The Court of Appeals blamed the delay on a lack of judges in Howard at the time of the case against John Edward Divver, but said that was no excuse for denying him a speedy trial.

Whether cases will be overturned on appeal as a result of the current situation is unknown, but court officials say they have been opting for longer, busier days over postponements when possible.

"The burden is on the judges. I don't know how they're doing it," said Michael A. Weal, chief of the Howard County state's attorney's District Court division. "There are no lulls in the action because we can't afford lulls."

Howard's five-judge contingent was reduced to four in September - as construction on a fifth courtroom was completed - when Vaughan was promoted to chief judge of the state's District Court system.

Sfekas' surgery and the several-day absence of Carroll District Judge Marc G. Rasinsky this month because of illness - and scheduled absences for training and conferences - added to the strain in both counties.

On a few days, officials said, the seven-judge, two-county district operated with three judges. On at least one day, both Carroll judges were out and a Howard judge traveled to Westminster, leaving two judges in Ellicott City.

With a limited number of retired, visiting judges in the state, the local judges have had to make do.

During the past several weeks, the two morning criminal dockets often have been combined - clerks normally set 20 to 25 cases on a docket - and speeding-ticket dockets have been mixed with drunken-driving cases. Three judges are handling the paperwork normally distributed among five, making for later hours in chambers.

The state's attorney's office also has two prosecutors in a double criminal docket courtroom, allowing one to negotiate cases outside while the other is prosecuting inside.

"Everyone's been understanding. Everyone's pitched in," Axel said. "Our clerks and bailiffs have done an unbelievable job, all without complaining."

Some say they see no point in griping.

"There are more important things in life than having a misdemeanor District Court case adjudicated, such as getting ... [Sfekas] well," said lawyer Jason A. Shapiro. "I'm not going to whine and complain that cases are not done."

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