STATE OF THE JUDICIARY ADDRESS
BY CHIEF JUDGE ROBERT M. BELL
BEFORE THE MARYLAND GENERAL ASSEMBLY
JANUARY 23, 2002
President Miller, Speaker Taylor, Ladies and Gentlemen of the 2002 General Assembly, Governor Glendening, Lieutenant Governor Townsend, Attorney General Curran, Comptroller Schaefer, Treasurer Dixon, distinguished guests, my fellow Marylanders all.
This is the fifth occasion on which I have addressed you on behalf of the Judicial branch of government. I am pleased once again to be able to report that the state of the Judiciary is sound and that it has made significant progress on important initiatives on which I have reported in the past, as well as new ones to which we look with anticipation. This progress is attributable to the dedication and commitment of Maryland’s judges, administrators, clerks and supporting staff. Working together, they have advanced the delivery of fair and equitable justice, thereby improving court operations for the benefit of us all.
Before highlighting some of the Judiciary’s accomplishments in the last year, let me reintroduce my colleagues on the Court of Appeals. In transcending order of seniority, they are: the Hon. John C. Eldridge, Anne Arundel County, the Hon. Irma S. Raker, Montgomery County, the Hon. Alan M. Wilner, Baltimore County, the Hon. Dale R. Cathell, Worcester County, the Hon. Glenn T. Harrell, Jr., Prince George’s County, and the Hon. Lynne A. Battaglia, Howard County. The judges of Maryland’s highest court contribute more than high caliber legal analysis of precedent-setting legal issues, reflected in the opinions that we issue; as a Court, we set policy in a variety of areas. Each is a valuable source of advice and counsel on a variety of issues. Indeed, their advice, judgment and assistance are invaluable.
In addition to my Court of Appeals colleagues, I rely on the Judiciary’s leadership team. That team, you may recall, consists of the presiding officers of the four courts that make up the Maryland Judiciary, and the State Court Administrator. Let me re-introduce them: Judge Joseph F. Murphy, Jr., of Baltimore County, Chief Judge of the Court of Special Appeals, 6th Circuit Administrative Judge Paul H. Weinstein of Montgomery County, Chair of the Conference of Circuit Judges, Judge James N. Vaughan of Howard County, Chief Judge of the District Court and Frank Broccolina, State Court Administrator.
Chief Judge Vaughan is a newcomer to the group, having replaced Judge Martha F. Rasin, who, last September, chose to return to the trial bench. With nearly 20 years on the bench, including 11 years as the Administrative Judge of the District Court’s 10th District, he brings strong administrative experience and firsthand knowledge of the evolution of this dynamic, high-volume trial court, which, by the way, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary on July 5, 2001. Judge Vaughan is in California attending a national conference on bio-terrorism, biological attack and the courts, a matter of some importance given recent events, and, thus, could not be with us today.
For five years, Judge Rasin led the District Court tirelessly, effectively and with vision. She is with us today and I ask that you join me in recognizing her significant contributions to the Judiciary during her tenure.
Last year when I spoke to you, this Nation had just lived through, in fact, been a part of what I termed “the definitive civics lesson,” in which the Judiciary, State and federal, performed its constitutionally mandated role as neutral arbiter, providing, in accordance with the rule of law, rational adjudication of the controversy surrounding the contested presidential election. I shared with you my belief that this civics lesson was important because it demonstrated the importance of our citizens understanding the workings of our system of government and, in particular, the role of the courts in that system and because it underscored the necessity of courts having the trust and confidence of the public, and the extent to which they rely on that trust and confidence for their effectiveness.
I concluded, and yet believe, that our system works. In addition, the civics lesson reconfirmed that the rule of law, protected principally by the courts, lies at the foundation of this country. That the system worked in turn proved its genius: three co-equal, separate and independent branches operating in, and governed by, a system of checks and balances, the purpose of which is the protection of the citizens against one branch becoming too powerful and against the potential for excesses and abuses of power. The proper result from the standpoint of the public good, I submitted, ordinarily is achieved and the proper balance struck when each branch, including the Judiciary, assiduously and consistently pursues its constitutional mission, notwithstanding and, indeed, in spite of, the dynamic tension that so proceeding will produce and the conflict between the branches that may result as a natural consequence.
I was concerned about the characterization by politicians and the media of the courts’ performance, that the Judiciary was painted as an extension of the political process. Independence from the perspective of judges and courts, I observed, contemplates that judicial decisions will not reflect the most popular or politically expedient course of action; rather they will be made on the merits, consistent with constitutional and statutory precepts and reflecting the application of sound principles and precedent. Thus, a Judiciary free of, and unfettered by, politics and political constraints, politicizing rhetoric, or the popular opinion of the moment is essential not simply to our system of government, but also gives meaning to, and in reality defines, the rule of law. Such a Judiciary more likely will be effective for it more likely will enjoy, and inspire, the public's trust and confidence.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have had a profound impact on this Nation and, quite conceivably, have changed our lives forever. In addition to testing our resolve, not so unlike the presidential election controversy, these events, and their aftermath, present a challenge to our system of government and test the strength of our commitment to the rule of law.
Since September 11, we have been required to be concerned about, and grapple with, the important issues spawned by the terrorist attacks, and its aftermath, heightened security being the most critical and the most pursued. Because this Nation is built on principles of personal freedom, of guaranteed liberties, as to it, the challenge will be to balance appropriately the rights of the individual against the public safety. Striving to achieve this balance will put our system of justice to the test. Resolution of many of the issues critical to achieving the balance will be made by state and federal judiciaries and their decisions will determine what rights and freedoms our children will – or will not – enjoy. How our Nation emerges from this difficult chapter in its history is dependent in part on the freedom of the judiciary to make independent decisions and thus help to shape future policy. Therefore, protecting the separation of powers is especially critical in times of national crisis, when emotion may replace logic and reason.
The Maryland Judicial Conference Legislative Agenda consists of proposed legislation consistent with, and, in fact, dictated by, the set of guiding principles I enumerated last year: fuller access to justice; improved case expedition and timeliness; equality, fairness and integrity in the judicial process; branch independence and accountability; and restored public trust and confidence. Moreover, all that we seek legislatively and budgetarily in this Session with respect to programs and initiatives are based on these fundamental principles. Preliminary to discussing our legislative package, I want briefly to mention what it does not contain.
The Judiciary is mindful that the condition of the State’s economy is a matter of serious concern this Legislative session and that there are economic constraints that pertain to this year’s budget. Thus, we have submitted a most conservative budget request. Fiscal restraint accounts for the lack of a request for additional judgeships. To be sure, we have certified the need for additional judges; however, we will endeavor, and intend, to make do with the present complement, continuing to utilize hard work, innovation, ingenuity and our very valuable cadre of retired judges.
Now, the Legislative agenda. Last year, the Maryland Judicial Conference proposed a constitutional amendment to empower the District Court Commissioners, who are judicial officers, to issue, when court is not in session, ex parte orders in cases of domestic violence and in which peace orders are appropriate. The intention was, and the effect of the amendment’s adoption would be, to afford 24 hour/7days a week coverage for these cases, thus, affording greater protection to those who require that protection.
We are again proposing that constitutional amendment and implementing statute. We are pleased, and fortunate, that Judge Rasin once again will be the point person on this most important legislation.
In addition to the constitutional amendment, the Judiciary’s 2001 legislative package sought approval of the second year of the Circuit Court Action Plan, a funding strategy for the State to share certain of the costs of the Circuit Courts, i.e., a number of judgeships, State assumption of the salaries of Circuit Court law clerks and State assumption of the cost of leasing courthouse space for the Clerks of Court. You approved the law clerks’ salaries. We are renewing our request for the leasing costs this year. Before doing so, we consulted Senator Walter Baker and assured ourselves that MACO, which supported the legislation last year, continues to do so. While this proposed legislation will have a significant budget impact, I hope the precipitate savings to the local jurisdictions will inure to the benefit of the Judiciary in the form of needed renovations to the courthouse facilities and improved security.
At the request of the Court of Appeals Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure (the Rules Committee), we have proposed legislation that will enable the Rules Committee to recommend to the Court of Appeals an amendment to Maryland Rule 2-511 to eliminate the concept of “alternate jurors” and permit more than six regular jurors in lieu of alternate jurors. There are good reasons for this legislation, which also is consistent with the Judiciary’s efforts, reflected in the work of the Council on Juror Use and Management, to make jury service more convenient and relevant than it is perceived to be today. Alternate jurors, like the regular jurors, invest a great deal of time listening to testimony, but are not permitted the opportunity to deliberate. Moreover, after deliberations have begun, a juror may be unable to continue and necessitate a mistrial. This legislation will allow the avoidance of the former and may reduce the possibility of the occurrence of the latter.
The Clients’ Security Trust Fund of the Bar of the State of Maryland, being concerned that its name does not adequately, or accurately, convey its mission, has asked the Conference to propose legislation to change its name to “The Clients’ Protection Fund of the Bar of the State of Maryland.” This is in keeping with the national trend in the client protection sector to become more accessible to those the organizations serve and to be less mysterious. It is also consistent with the Judiciary’s emphasis and guiding principles.
At the request of the budget committees, we have proposed legislation that will amend the Land Records Improvement Fund, special fund legislation designed to complete the successful automation of all land recording in Maryland. It is reflective of our submission to the Joint Chairmen, that the special fund surcharge fee ceiling be increased from $5 to $10 and that the current sunset provision be repealed.
Maryland law is clear that, in criminal cases, all appropriate interpreter costs are to be borne by the State. Maryland law is not so clear with respect to interpreter costs in civil proceedings. This is an equal access to justice issue. Accordingly, a committee representative of the affected communities and interested groups and chaired by the Honorable Audrey Carrion, was formed last year to address the issue. The proposed interpreter legislation, which addresses interpreter costs in both the District Court and the Circuit Courts, is the result. I want to thank Judge Carrion and her committee for their hard work and for their commitment to ensuring access to justice for all citizens. I might mention that this legislation is consistent with the Speaker’s vision for One Maryland and the Governor’s very visible commitment to diversity.
Speaking of diversity, I direct your attention to the 2001 Retrospective Report issued by the Select Committee on Gender Equality, a joint bench/bar committee, which has been in existence and operational for more than 14 years. The report is an update of its landmark study on gender bias in the courts, completed in 1989, but it also addressed racial and ethnic bias. The Retrospective Report noted that, while many strides have been made in the area of gender equality, incidents of gender bias yet exist, and that there is a growing perception of racial and ethnic bias.
Working together, the Bench and Bar responded forcefully and effectively to address gender fairness issues. With the strong commitment of Maryland State Bar President Pamela J. White, who has been, for some time, a relentless advocate for the creation of a commission to look at issues of racial and ethnic fairness, I formed the Court’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Judicial Process. It is chaired by Court of Appeals Judge Dale R. Cathell. U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Day and Deputy Attorney General Carmen Shepard have agreed to serve as its vice-chairs. We are in the process of identifying and contacting Commission members for the initial meeting on March 7. It is imperative that our legal system not only operates without bias of any kind, but that it also be perceived as dispensing justice fairly and equitably.
Assisting families in need is a critical aspect of our mission. Pursuing that mission, the Judiciary has extended the services to families and children through its family divisions and family services programs statewide. Over the past year, this has included:
Last year I reported that Maryland was addressing case expedition and timeliness and, in fact, the District Court and the Circuit Courts were in the final stages of developing statewide case processing time standards. That process is now complete. The Judiciary has adopted self-imposed time standards and has conducted a statewide assessment of trial court performance. Administrative judges, court administrators, clerks and supporting staff have now reviewed the assessment results and have developed individual operational improvement plans court by court, jurisdiction by jurisdiction. A second assessment will be conducted in the latter part of this year to gauge the success of these improvement efforts.
I firmly believe that providing more and better services for court users is critical to the acquisition and retention of the public’s trust and confidence. Across the country, courts working with government and community partners are attempting to address complex social issues focused on problem-solving and remedies, which are not the strong points of traditional legal processes. As an example, drug courts are becoming increasingly prevalent. Drug court programs, operating in several counties and Baltimore City, are geared toward nonviolent drug addicts, addressing all aspects of addiction by combining extensive supervision of participants with comprehensive drug treatment. They are uniformly given high marks for effectiveness. Very recently, I signed an Administrative Order creating a statewide Drug Court Commission to develop best practices for these highly successful programs. Baltimore City District Court Judge Jamey H. Weitzman has agreed to chair this Commission. Her leadership of her court’s drug court program has been critical to its success. Baltimore City Circuit Judge Thomas E. Noel, who heads Baltimore City’s Circuit Drug Court, will serve as the Commission’s vice-chair. They will be joined by judges from around the State, state criminal justice personnel and representatives of the executive and legislative branches of government, whose cooperation and collaboration are vitally necessary.
Collaboration and cooperation among varied segments of the justice system were very much in evidence and worked well in a study of current pretrial release procedures in Maryland. Chaired by attorney Carey Deeley, Jr., the Judiciary’s Pretrial Release Project Advisory Committee issued its comprehensive report in October, after more than a year’s study. This Committee, representing a fair cross section of the criminal justice system, offered nine key recommendations, including the creation of a statewide pretrial release agency and the guarantee of legal representation of the accused at initial appearances and bail review hearings. At the same time, the Committee report is sensitive to the rights of crime victims, and stresses the importance of pretrial personnel serving as a vital connection between victims and witnesses and the criminal justice system. I thank Mr. Deeley for undertaking a project of this magnitude and for his commitment to, and enthusiasm for, it.
The Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office (MACRO), the successor to the Maryland Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission, has completed a year as a court related agency. With your support, it has realized some significant achievements: (1) the growth of effective mediation programs in the Circuit Courts for Anne Arundel, Allegany, Charles, Frederick, Howard and Worcester counties; (2) the installation of pilot civil mediation programs in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City; (3) the development of 18 new District Court mediation programs across the state that provide free mediation services; (4) the promotion of model peace schools in Prince George’s and Howard counties, and funding of mentoring relationships for each to assist other schools in replicating their successes; (5) the support of ADR processes, training programs and projects within such agencies as the Maryland Department of the Environment, the Human Relations Commission, the Office of Administrative Hearings, the Attorney General’s Office, the Maryland State Police, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; and (6) the establishment of a new statewide Community Conferencing Center to transform community conflicts into community-building opportunities.
Cognizant, and believing strongly, that the good government envisioned by the Constitution can be achieved only if each of the branches constituting the governing structure acts cooperatively and in harmony whenever possible, during the last year, we have put that belief into action. We have worked collaboratively with the Executive Branch to create memoranda of understanding concerning the Maryland Statewide Warrant System, domestic violence civil protective orders, and the collection of fines, fees, and costs. In addition, although representing only 1.5 per cent of the State’s budget, we have been a willing and voluntary participant in the Governor’s cost containment program.
The Judiciary also has partnered with the General Assembly, continuing the work begun by your task force on business and technology. Working with the business community and the bar, we will establish this year a statewide case management program within the Judiciary to resolve substantial disputes affecting business interests, including those involving unique and specialized issues emanating from emerging technologies. In the short term, the Judicial Institute under the leadership of Judge Alan Wilner will be responsible for developing the specialized judicial training necessary for those judges specially assigned to this program. More long term initiatives will include building the necessary technology infrastructure, such as electronic filing and the electronic exchange of information between parties, within these programs.
An issue of great concern to the public is the Judiciary’s policy on access to court records. The expanded task force, chaired by retired Court of Special Appeals Judge Paul E. Alpert, appointed last year to study the issue, has made tremendous progress. It is working on a draft of its final report, which will be issued for public comment before it is finalized. The public has been kept informed of the deliberations through regular updates on the Judiciary’s website.
Finally, in our continuing pursuit of public trust and confidence, the Judiciary is still active in public outreach efforts. There are plans underway to engage the public in a dialogue about the justice system through a series of public fora. Our goal is to better educate the public about their courts while, at the same time, learning from them their concerns.
As always, I am indebted to you for this opportunity to address you. Best wishes for a productive and enjoyable Session.