Jurors may have less waiting to do

Baltimore Circuit Court aims to start trials on time by freeing judges from routine tasks

March 05, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore judges are hoping that city residents with jury duty this morning notice a welcome change: less waiting around.

Starting today, the Circuit Court will shift the way it processes criminal cases by shuffling the duties of the 10 criminal judges. Instead of having each judge sift through dozens of routine court pleadings before getting to their trials, two judges will now spend their entire day handling those duties, leaving the rest to focus exclusively on trials.

"Jurors will love it," said Judge John M. Glynn, who oversees the criminal caseload. "There will be less foolishness."

The courthouses are plagued by postponements - it's not unusual for a murder trial to be delayed four or more times - but it's unclear whether the new docket system will assuage that problem.

Glynn and Circuit Judge Wanda K. Heard are the first to oversee the new "reception courts." Those duties will be passed around every three months to other judges willing to take them on.

Anyone who has had jury duty in Baltimore knows to bring a book or three. The excessive waits were happening because, even though trials are scheduled to begin at 9:30 each morning, judges usually could not get to them until 11:30 - or sometimes even after lunch. The judges' mornings were consumed with other matters, such as postponing cases and taking guilty pleas. Those chores now will all be done in reception court

Glynn hopes the new system will shave a day or two off murder trials that used take five days because of the hours-long morning delays. This means the system, which conducted 177 criminal jury trials last year, should be able to handle more trials.

At least theoretically. But some lawyers worry about potential kinks in the new system.

Bridget Duffy Shepherd, chief public defender for the Circuit Court, said she fears lawyers might end up stuck in reception court all day, which would prevent them from preparing for other cases.

Another concern she raised is that, at least at first, 25 fewer cases per week will be scheduled so as not to overwhelm the new system. "I'm afraid that if we set less cases in, people are going to start sitting in jail longer," she said.

Glynn and the other judges - who say they have been working on this plan for years - understand that there might be resistance to change. But they say some change was needed.

"I don't know anybody who thinks the way we were doing things was a great success," Glynn said.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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