Guiding principles have led to major accomplishments
Chief Judge Robert M. Bell has led the Maryland Judiciary according to guiding principles that he outlined early in his tenure as the head of the state court system: fuller access to justice; improved case expedition and timeliness; equality, fairness and integrity in the judicial process; judicial branch independence and accountability; and restored public trust and confidence in the court system. Guided by these principles, here are some of the highlights of his tenure.
In 2008, Judge Bell created the Maryland Access to Justice Commission to develop, coordinate and implement policy initiatives to expand access to the State’s civil justice system. A coalition of representatives from Maryland courts, executive branch agencies, legislators, attorneys, social services and faith groups, and legal service providers, the commission recommends changes to improve the ability of all Marylanders to use the courts effectively and to obtain legal help when they need it. It primarily focuses on expanding access to the state’s civil justice system, which includes landlord-tenant cases, divorce, child custody issues, small claims and debt collection, domestic violence, and other non-criminal matters.
Judge Bell’s access to justice strategy has also included creating a Commission on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Judicial Process; establishing a Standing Committee on Court Interpretation and Translation and working with immigrant groups on language barriers; increasing emphasis on pro bono legal services expectations statewide, encouraging all members of the bar to provide 50 hours of pro bono service annually, and requiring them to report on their pro bono activities and services.
Judge Bell created the national award-winning Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office (MACRO). Under his leadership, MACRO serves as an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) resource for the state and promotes the use of high-quality ADR services as an effective and time- and cost-saving alternative to pursing legal issues through the courts.
Under Chief Judge Bell’s leadership, Maryland responded quickly and effectively to the devastating decline in interest rates in 2008 that resulted from the economic downturn which, in turn, caused a precipitous decline in funding for civil legal services. The Judiciary sought and was granted an increase in filing fee surcharges to generate an additional $6 million in funding for civil legal services programs per year. This helped stabilize funding for the state’s civil legal services providers, ensuring access to counsel for thousands of low-income residents of the state.
When Maryland was facing a crisis in foreclosures, Judge Bell sent a letter in July 2008 to each attorney in Maryland asking for volunteers to help homeowners at risk. More than 200 attorneys immediately volunteered and signed up for the first in what has become an ongoing series of training programs. As part of this effort, the Maryland Judiciary, partnering with the Governor, Attorney General, Maryland State Bar Association, the Maryland State Department of Labor Licensing and Regulation (DLLR), and legal services groups, launched the Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono Project (FPPBP).
Throughout the nation, there has been a recent history of judicial contests marked by incivility and partisanship. In 2005, Chief Judge Bell, with the support of the Judicial Ethics and Public Trust and Confidence committees, called for the formation of a citizens’ group to study and monitor the conduct of Maryland’s contested judicial elections. The result was the Maryland Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee (MDJCCC), a diverse, representative and bi-partisan group of Marylanders committed to maintaining respect for the uniqueness of the judicial office, and to promoting civility in the conduct of contested elections for Maryland’s circuit court judgeships. The MDJCC is independent, volunteer, and unofficial. Its commitment is to promote public education about the role of judges, and to improve the level of public discourse in judicial campaigns. The MDJCC remains neutral on the issue of contested judicial elections, and focuses its efforts to ensure that those elections are conducted in a manner that promotes respect for the integrity and legitimacy of the bench.
Under his leadership, Maryland courts now provide statewide forms in most civil practice areas, as well as family law self-help centers in nearly every circuit court, and a statewide District Court Self-Help Center that now serves over 20,000 persons per year on a walk-in basis, over the phone and via live chat.
The State Law Library assumed responsibility for managing the state’s legal content website, the People’s Law Library, www.peoples-law.org.
The Judiciary continues to be a nationwide leader in service to the self-represented, producing multimedia materials, technical assistance documents, courses and public materials to support court staff in aiding the public, and to provide the public access to accurate, but understandable information.
Chief Judge Bell has undertaken several steps to advance diversity in the Maryland Judiciary. He appointed the first female administrative judge and the first female African-American administrative judge in the State, as well as the first African-American chief judge of the District Court of Maryland. Under his tenure, there are currently 11 women administrative judges. His diversity goal extends to the staff of the administrative office, as well.
Judge Bell has also been an outspoken advocate for increased diversity in legal education. Over the years, he has had countless law clerks and interns, and not only assists them in their knowledge of the law and career development, but also mentors them for years after their clerkships have ended.
Soon after he became chief, Chief Judge Bell oversaw, via the statewide Department of Family Administration, the creation of the family divisions and family services programs in Maryland’s Circuit Courts to provide a comprehensive approach for families whose legal issues often involve non-legal issues, such as housing, substance abuse and mental health. Addressing these underlying challenges in a holistic way will more likely lead to better outcomes for families. Under Chief Judge Bell’s direction, the focus has increased on out-of-court processes in order to provide better outcomes for families.
The Maryland Judiciary’s Foster Care Court Improvement Project’s (FCCIP) was started shortly before Chief Judge Bell was appointed to lead the Judiciary, and, under his direction, has become institutionalized and has continued to drive law reform in the area of child welfare. The FCCIP endeavors to improve courts’ performance in the handling of child abuse and neglect cases and to ensure the safety, permanency and the well-being of children in foster care. The primary focus of the FCCIP is child in need of assistance (CINA) and related guardianship and adoption cases. The FCCIP is comprised of juvenile judges, masters, court personnel, child welfare attorneys, representatives from the state child welfare agency, and other relevant child welfare stakeholders.
Chief Judge Bell has laid the groundwork for a ground-breaking overhaul of the Judiciary’s multiple case management systems. Under his direction, the Judiciary has been working with members of the bar and advocacy groups to update and upgrade all court management systems, including integrating new technology, business processes and management practices. The project, Maryland Electronic Courts (MDEC), is creating a single statewide integrated case management system for all levels of Maryland’s courts. MDEC’s features include the 24/7 ability to send documents to and obtain information from the court from anywhere at any time; e-filing options; and the ability to view, track and archive electronic case records.
Chief Judge Bell has completely restructured the Judiciary's governance system to provide increased opportunities for collaboration and coordinated policy making. Structural improvements under Chief Judge Bell's leadership have included: creating a Conference of Circuit Judges, Conference of Circuit Clerks, Conference of Court Administrators, and Conference of Orphans Court Judges; and reorganizing of Maryland Judicial Conference committee structure. Together, these actions have improved overall judicial management, as well as management at the local level, preserving the appropriate realm of local decision-making for individual courts.
In January 2006, Case Search was introduced to meet the public’s need for timely, accurate information, and satisfy requests received in the court clerks’ offices. Case Search, the searchable online database of state court records, includes detailed case information for all Maryland Circuit and District Court cases. Case Search provides free online access to public information from Maryland case records.
These are some of the achievements made during Judge Bell’s tenure as chief judge. He has been on the bench since 1975, and has served as a judge on all four levels of the Maryland Judiciary, an almost unique accomplishment. Chief Judge Bell’s astonishing 40-year law career has earned him, quite literally, a place in Maryland and United States history.