Conaway makes case for jury control

City Circuit Court clerk appears before House panel

March 31, 2010|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Frank M. Conaway Sr., the elected clerk of the Baltimore Circuit Court, thinks the city's jury commissioner has bungled the way people are summoned for jury duty. He wants to take over the job, and he argued his case Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis.

No one was there to oppose him.

Conaway has the backing of Del. Curt Anderson, a Democrat who chairs the city delegation and agreed to sponsor legislation fulfilling the court clerk's desires. Conaway hugged the committee's tough-minded chairman, Joseph F. Vallario Jr., who made sure the former two-term delegate (he served 1971 to 1975 and from 1979 to 1983) presented first at the hearing.

The clerk has long complained that too many dead people are asked to serve on juries, as well as people who have moved out of the city. He told lawmakers that he hears repeated complaints from residents called to serve several times a year while their neighbors "have never been called."

Juror summons are culled from voter registration rolls and motor vehicle registrations, but Conway said state officials simply dump the data into a big spreadsheet and don't filter for old names, making the list obsolete as notices are sent to the wrong people.

Court officials have blamed residents for failing to update personal information quickly enough, and have said that workers can't keep up with the transient nature of city residents. They have called Conaway's complaints overblown.

Only two delegates asked Conaway questions; one was about cost, and another about his ability to work with court administrators in Annapolis.

The clerk didn't think assuming control of the jury commissioner would carry a price tag. He's elected by city residents to run the court; the jury commissioner is appointed by the Maryland Administrative Office of the Courts. Conaway pays her salary but cannot manage her or her staff. When Nancy Dennis sends a letter, it is printed on Conaway's letterhead. And it is Conaway's name that appears on the more than 85,000 jury summons sent out each year.

One delegate asked Conaway if the administrative court office could mediate the disputes between the clerk and the jury officer. Conaway emphatically replied, "Not at all," and said his relationship with the jury commissioner has soured so much over this issue that it could not be salvaged.

Two representatives of statewide court clerk groups did voice opposition, but only because the bill had mistakenly been written to affect every courthouse in Maryland. When Anderson promptly amended the legislation to apply only to Baltimore, the two officials just as quickly announced they no longer had an opinion one way or another.

Anderson did note, for the record, that Marcella A. Holland, the administrative judge for the Baltimore Circuit Court, was firmly opposed to Conaway's bid. But the delegate said that "it comes down to who can do the job better," and he thinks the answer is clear - it's Conaway.

The bill still has a long way to go to get out of committee, through the House and on to the Senate. (There is no equivalent version in the Senate.)

State court officials, in a letter to Anderson noting their opposition, say that some Maryland counties retain control of the jury commissioner while others leave it to the chief judge or to state judicial authorities. They said there is a trend to put all jury commissioners under the local chief judge in their jurisdiction and that Anderson's bill "is an intrusion into an area reserved for judicial control."

The letter states that a new system is coming in the next three years to streamline the process in 15 jurisdictions, including Baltimore's. "A request for a change," the letter states, "is counterproductive" and "technically infeasible."

Conaway has tried to gain control over the jury process for years. A similar bid failed in 2007, in part, he said, because it was sponsored by his son, Del. Frank M. Conaway Jr., who still sits on the Judiciary Committee. The city lost the job back in 1982 because offices were behind in technology.

Conaway likened his oversight of Dennis to that of a CEO of a large company who has to pay his right-hand man but can't tell him what to do. Both Conaway and Anderson used words like "pervasive problem" and "broken" and "a hopeless situation" in describing the jury process.

At the end of the hearing, Conaway apologized to each and every resident of Baltimore who has ever been called for jury duty.

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