Appointing city judges

June 13, 2006

Maryland's busiest trial court is working short these days, and more judicial vacancies are expected in the coming months. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has moved expeditiously - and judiciously - in the past to keep state courts fully staffed, and we encourage him to address the vacancies in Baltimore with the same good speed and diligence.

The Baltimore Circuit Court's 32-member bench is down three judges because of retirement, illness and the recent death of Judge Stephanie L. Royster. The court handles the most criminal and civil cases of any local jurisdiction, about 64,926 filed last year. It is making do these days with retired judges, and it's not unusual to have six or seven on any given day to help close the gap.

But the timely disposition of cases could be hampered if the three city vacancies aren't filled by fall when three more judges plan to retire. The city court's new term begins in September, which may seem like months away. But it's not when you consider the time it takes to break in a new judge - six weeks.

Mr. Ehrlich has received high praise for his judicial choices and for depoliticizing the process. Partisanship has not been the driving force on these appointments - as too often was the case with his predecessor.

In the past two months, Mr. Ehrlich has appointed seven judges to fill vacancies in the District Courts of Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties and in the Prince George's Circuit Court. He has a pool of eight qualified lawyers selected by the city's judicial nomination commission from which to appoint replacements for retiring Baltimore Judges Thomas E. Noel and Bonita J. Dancy; he also could choose from that list to fill Judge Royster's seat.

Baltimore's Circuit Court judges preside over some of the toughest cases in the system, whether they involve teenagers accused of murder, complex asbestos litigation or voluminous medical malpractice claims. Relying on retired judges can provide only short-term relief in a courthouse that grows more outmoded and overextended by the day and already has a problem with postponements because of the unavailability of judges.

This is an election year, which means judicial vacancies could get caught up in a confluence of political campaigns, a possible change in administration or the onset of the next legislative session. But Mr. Ehrlich's record suggests that he will act to maintain the professionalism of Maryland's judiciary.

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