State courts' first ombudsman is prepared to reach out, listen

Howard's task includes ensuring clarity, fairness

September 13, 2005|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

For years, William L. Howard worked behind the scenes in the Baltimore City and state court systems. But now the soft-spoken administrator is planning to step into the limelight as the Maryland courts' first ombudsman.

Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell created the job this summer after a commission last year recommended having someone take complaints from the public and promote the judiciary's position and programs on racial and ethnic fairness.

"I want people to know I exist," Howard, 62, said recently.

Howard said he has no plan for exactly how to accomplish the job, but after about 25 years of working in the courts, he has ideas, starting with outreach, especially in minority communities. "We need to show that the system is not against them," he said.

He is devising complaint forms and starting to formulate a budget. Within 60 to 90 days, he would like to have a poster, to be displayed in courthouses, saying in several languages that courts are dedicated to fairness.

Howard's job includes working to make courts more understandable for those who use them and trying to resolve concerns about biased treatment.

Last year, a survey by the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Judicial Process found that more poor and minority respondents perceived discrimination and that 35 percent of the minority respondents thought the outcomes of cases would have been different if the race or ethnicity of people involved were different. Only 491 of the 11,250 people who were sent the survey completed it. The questionnaire was in English only.

Among the report's chief recommendations for building public confidence in the judiciary was gearing courts more toward customer service.

Though a few individual courts elsewhere in the country have ombudsmen and related customer-service-style programs, Howard is believed to be the first ombudsman in the country to tackle such a role statewide. Far more widespread and established are programs in which individual lawyers volunteer to anonymously bring other lawyers' complaints about demeanor or treatment to judges.

New Jersey began putting ombudsmen in courts in local jurisdictions in recent years. In the area around Newark, for example, that office provides information, outreach, tours, help in navigating the courts and assistance for the befuddled about where to go, how to seek an interpreter and what they are supposed to do.

Shazeeda Samsudeen, the ombudsman there, said she handles 90 complaints a year. The feedback gives court officials a sense of whether there is an issue that should be addressed.

For people who think they were discriminated against, Howard said, he will listen to their complaints and investigate independently.

"People want a place to vent," said the Catonsville resident, who earns $71,000 a year.

"What we envision is [that] it is an informal process, and confidential," Howard said.

His role is separate from the Commission on Judicial Disabilities, which investigates complaints of judges' misconduct, and the Attorney Grievance Commission, which can prosecute lawyers.

While ombudsmen for the judiciary are common in other countries, and for other government agencies and business, the concept is relatively new for American courts.

"It really allows the courts, I think, to get a handle on what the problems are so they can solve them," said Madelynn Herman, an analyst for the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., and author of a booklet that recommends courts have complaint policies and procedures.

Robert Condlin, a University of Maryland law professor, said: "It is characteristic of the legal system when it comes under attack to do PR. It's got some aspects of that about it."

Nevertheless, he said, it makes sense for the courts to have a channel for feedback, and this can serve as a starting point for groups that want to address what they suspect is a systemic practice.

C. Christopher Brown, another University of Maryland law professor, praised the idea: "The courts often just focus on dealing with the problems that lawyers present, and this system would allow others, such as jurors, witnesses, laypeople, people proceeding [without a lawyer] to have an outlet for their concerns."

A Baltimore native, Howard grew up in Cherry Hill, joining the Air Force after receiving a diploma from City College. Returning home in 1966, he worked at the city jail while pursuing a business administration degree at the University of Baltimore. He received a master's degree in criminal justice at Coppin State University in 1974, moving into the juvenile justice field. In the early 1980s, he worked as a deputy clerk for the Baltimore City Circuit Court and was court administrator from 1986 to 1996.

He holds a doctorate in education from Morgan State.

Howard spent a year on a federal grant doing for the Cambodian courts much of the same kind of work he had done locally. He returned in 1997 to work for the state courts as an administrator.

To reach the ombudsman, call William Howard at 410-260-1298, or write to him at the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal Building, 361 Rowe Blvd., Annapolis 21401.

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