BY CHIEF JUDGE ROBERT M. BELL
BEFORE THE MARYLAND GENERAL ASSEMBLY
FEBRUARY 13, 2003
Governor Ehrlich, President Miller, Speaker Busch, ladies and gentlemen of the 2003 General Assembly, Lieutenant Governor Steele, Comptroller Schaefer, Treasurer Kopp, distinguished guests, my fellow Marylanders all.
On this, my sixth State of the Judiciary Address, with your indulgence, I want to begin by mentioning an event that I believe offers some perspective on the state of Maryland’s Judiciary.
For a number of years, my colleague on the Court, Judge Wilner, has been active in the exchange of ideas between American and Russian judges. Not long ago, during one of those exchanges, I had the pleasure of meeting with Russian lawyers and judges who had come here for a first-hand look at our system of jury trials, as they have done with respect to other aspects of our system of justice. Russia has begun reinstating jury trials in felony cases. What different paths our nations have followed, how great the tradition of democracy and the Rule of Law here, how weak the protections that Russians—indeed, most people in the world—experienced for much of their history. In this nation and, yes, in this State, we live under the Rule of Law and enjoy a legal system that runs smoothly, that dispenses justice routinely, and where the people’s rights routinely are protected. Viewed in this light, how could I report otherwise than that the state of our Judiciary is not only good, but is a model that is studied and emulated by, and in, nations around the world.
Critical to the protection of the Rule of Law and to ensuring that our system of justice remains a model are my fellow judges on the Court of Appeals. As always, I am privileged to introduce them to you. In order of seniority, they are: Judge John C. Eldridge, Anne Arundel County; Judge Irma S. Raker, Montgomery County; Judge Alan M. Wilner, Baltimore County; Judge Dale R. Cathell, Worcester County; Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr., Prince George’s County; and Judge Lynn A. Battaglia, Howard County.
While he will not reach mandatory retirement age until November—and his actual retirement is, I hope, years in the future—this will be the last time I have the opportunity to introduce Judge Eldridge to this body as a member of this Court. As of January 7, 2003, Judge Eldridge had served on the Court of Appeals for 29 years. Now in his thirtieth year, the longest tenure of any member of this Court in this Century, Judge Eldridge has served the State and its people with great distinction, authoring close to 800 opinions, 569 majority opinions, 153 dissents, and 61 concurrences, as well as performing many delegated administrative responsibilities.
The Daily Record took note of Judge Eldridge’s 25th anniversary on the Court. It described him as a “fierce defender of constitutional rights, a guardian of citizen access to the administrative process, and an advocate for the importance of state law in the scheme of federalism.” High praise and deservedly so. To this accurate assessment, I add that he has brought both integrity and a powerful, probing intellect to the deliberations of the Court of Appeals—and managed to make more than a few attorneys wish they had stayed home rather than face his pointed and thoughtful questioning.
In addition to my Court of Appeals colleagues, I rely heavily on the Judiciary’s leadership team, the Judicial Cabinet. You may recall that team consists of the presiding officers of the four courts that make up the Maryland Judiciary, and the State Court Administrator. They are: Judge Joseph F. Murphy, Jr., of Baltimore County, Chief Judge of the Court of Special Appeals, 1st Circuit Administrative Judge Daniel M. Long of Somerset County, recently elected 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.
Although a new member of the Cabinet, Danny Long is not new to the Judiciary or to the Conference of Circuit Judges. A judge for more than 10 years, he has been the Administrative Judge of the First Judicial Circuit, consisting of Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester Counties, and its representative on the Conference of Circuit Judges since 1996. And because he is also a former colleague of many of you, Judge Long promises to be a very valuable resource in developing programs and practices that will enhance the administration of the Circuit Courts.
Judge Long succeeds Judge Paul Weinstein, who will retire next month. Although he is not able to be with us today, I did want to acknowledge the fine job he did in representing the Circuit Courts, as well as the entire Judiciary, as a member of the leadership team over the last four years. We offer to him our thanks and best wishes for a well-deserved retirement.
A report on the state of the Judiciary should address the accomplishments of the past year. I am happy—indeed, proud—to do so.
I will begin by stating what, to me, is the obvious. At every level, from the District Court to the Court of Appeals, justice in Maryland is administered by an exceptionally capable and dedicated corps of judges, who, in turn, are supported by hard-working and able staff here in Annapolis and around the State.
I am aware that this fact is not entirely obvious to all, including some of you. That it is not immediately obvious to everyone is a testament to the quality of our judiciary: only when controversy surrounds a case does anyone pay much attention to a system that handles nearly two and a half million cases each year with quiet efficiency and skill. Even under the most difficult circumstances, our judges and support staff do an extraordinary job.
And we can do even better. What organization cannot? Finding ways to improve is a constant concern for us. A moment ago, I said that we are fortunate to live under the Rule of Law in a legal system that runs smoothly, that dispenses justice routinely, and where the people’s rights are protected. Without access to that system, however, the people cannot avail themselves of its benefits.
Some of you have heard me speak about the guiding principles to which the Judiciary is committed: 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. It is our success in improving access to justice, and our commitment to continuing to do so, that I will address today. Before doing so, however, I will mention two initiatives which also reflect the Judiciary’s commitment to innovation, problem-solving and collaboration.
Eight years ago, Maryland’s first drug court was established. It was a juvenile drug court in Baltimore City. Today, there are seven drug courts—both juvenile and adult—in operation throughout the State. And there are three more in the planning stages. We are committed to drug courts.
Evidence of that commitment is the Drug Treatment Court Commission. Established just last year, its membership includes representatives from state criminal justice organizations, as well as the legislative and executive branches. Under the leadership of Baltimore City District Court Judge Jamey Weitzman, its chair, and Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Thomas Noel, its vice chair, both of whom head successful drug court programs in their respective courts and are here for your acknowledgment, the Commission was established to standardize and advance drug court programs statewide. One of the Commission’s priorities is to evaluate the cases that have gone through drug court and measure their effectiveness.
Drug courts have been enormously successful. This has been confirmed by a study of recidivism in Baltimore. The indicia of success, however, is not just in reducing the pressure on the courts or providing effective treatment, but in making possible the reunification of families, the birth of babies without addiction, and the transformation of former substance abusers to stable and productive members of society. I am extremely pleased that the governor is also committed to making this a priority for Maryland. As recently as this week, we have begun a collaborative effort with the Department of Juvenile Justice and Secretary Montague to initiate the implementation of juvenile drug courts throughout the State.
Also, I want to report to you on an initiative that had its impetus in the General Assembly—the creation of a business and technology case management plan for Circuit Courts. This initiative offers a special track for complex cases involving technology, business and economic issues, with judges specially trained to hear the cases. The plan went into effect on the first day of this year, on schedule and as promised.
Another positive and tangible result of collaboration between the legislative and judicial branches of government, which directly speaks to access, is the increased powers of the District Court commissioners in order to provide greater access—24/7—to victims of domestic violence. Consistent with our commitment to access was the Judiciary’s, in particular the District Court’s, effort to prepare for the day when the commissioners’ powers were expanded. When the voters approved a constitutional amendment for that purpose last November, we had a plan in place to train the commissioners and courthouse staff, retool our IT system, and ensure that the protections envisioned in the new law were immediately available. We are indebted to Judge Martha Rasin, former Chief Judge of the District Court and now of the Anne Arundel County District Court, who was instrumental in this effort. Please recognize her leadership and hard work.
The Judiciary is aware, as are you, of the growing diversity of our State. With that diversity comes new challenges. One such challenge is dealing with the fact that some new citizens may not master English quickly or easily. This presents access to justice concerns. We are required to do more than simply open our doors; we must ensure that those citizens understand the proceedings when they appear in court. As the General Assembly did with regard to executive branch agencies, we have made this a priority throughout the Judiciary. In that regard, we have established the Standing Committee on Court Interpretation and Translation Services, a permanent structure to further this effort under the capable leadership of Judge Audrey J. Carrion from the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, and Judge Brian G. Kim of the District Court in Montgomery County.
We are continuing to expand the Judiciary’s efforts to make better use of ADR, appropriate dispute resolution, as an alternative to settling disputes in a court of law. In that regard, Maryland has been selected by the American Bar Association to receive the prestigious D’Alemberte/Raven Award for outstanding contributions to the dispute resolution field. I will accept the award in recognition of the leadership and innovation that have become hallmarks of Maryland’s ADR initiative.
Essential to our system of justice is the work done by the Public Defender, Maryland Legal Services, the Legal Aid Bureau, volunteer legal organizations, bar foundations, bar associations and a number of public interest and public service organizations. As a result of their efforts, and the valuable pro bono contributions of Maryland lawyers, many Marylanders who cannot afford an attorney do not face the prospect of going into court without skilled, professional representation or some assistance in understanding the process and/or in representing themselves.
Nevertheless, these resources are insufficient to reach or help many other Marylanders. We know that this is so, both from anecdotal reports and from experience. Similarly, we know that Maryland lawyers donate, and have long donated, many thousands of hours each year to ensure access to the justice system for people of limited means and to assist non-profit organizations. Until now, we have had no way to quantify the full extent of this generosity. All we can say with certainty is that despite this generosity and all existing resources, there remains a significant need for legal services and assistance.
To assist us in quantifying the level of pro bono legal services performed by Maryland lawyers, the Court of Appeals, supported by the Maryland State Bar Association, adopted new rules that encourage all members of the bar in Maryland to do 50 hours of pro bono legal work each year and require them to report annually on their pro bono efforts. Other rules provide for the establishment of pro bono committees, locally and statewide to evaluate the need for legal assistance to the poor, assess the pro bono effort being made and strategically plan for meeting the need. Based on the experience of Florida with similar rules, we are hopeful of reducing the gap between the assistance needed and the need being met.
The Judiciary is sensitive to the cost of providing services to citizens and appreciates the daunting task facing you and Governor Ehrlich in passing a budget for the next fiscal year. The budget that the Judiciary has submitted is a conservative one. Indeed, given the constraints under which all of us are operating today, there is little in the Judiciary budget that is new and not required by law or rule.
I have, however, included $1.2 million in the Judiciary’s budget to support the work of the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC). MLSC funds vital programs, like the Legal Aid Bureau, the House of Ruth, just two examples, that directly impact access to justice and, thus, are critical to the Judiciary’s mission. Although funding for MLSC, consisting of interest on lawyer trust accounts, filing fee surcharge on specified civil cases and funds from the State Unclaimed Property Fund, has been included as special funds in the Judiciary’s budget, this is the first time the Judiciary has included general funds in its budget for this specific purpose.
We have done so because funding for legal assistance to the poor has fallen behind. It has not kept up with the increase in the number of cases. We have done so because sources of revenue—the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts, or IOLTA, in particular—have decreased. We have done so because it is necessary.
It is a modest, even small, amount of money. But it benefits people and, through them, gives substance and meaning to justice; this small sum of money will make access to justice for many Marylanders a reality.
The effort to advance juvenile, family, and adult drug courts in Maryland will require financial support and, as such, I am requesting $262,000 to acquire county and regionally-based drug court coordinators to provide the essential technical expertise to courts and their communities, critical to a project of this scope and importance. Similarly, our ability to address the fundamental issue of providing access to our citizens needing interpretive services requires additional funding to provide for the escalating need of interpreters in proceedings before the District and Circuit Courts; the translation of court information and documents; and the need to develop qualified court interpreters in languages of greatest need. For this purpose, I have asked for an increase in this budget area of $778,000.
We have refrained from asking for any increase in judgeships, although we could justify doing so. Each year we calculate the number of judges needed to handle caseloads in individual courts in a timely manner. In the certification that was transmitted to President Miller and Speaker Taylor in November, we identified the need for 23 more judges—13 in Circuit Courts and 10 in the District Court. Thus, while there is ample justification for additional judges, we recognize that the State’s fiscal situation counsels against such a request. Instead, our budget continues to include funding for retired judges, a valuable yet often overlooked resource, which becomes even more critical in the absence of new judgeships.
As you explore long-term, structural responses to the State’s fiscal difficulties, I urge you to remember the absolute necessity of an effective and just legal system. I urge each of you to be mindful of the steadily increasing pressures on our courts. It is, after all, the Rule of Law and the people’s belief in it that allow our society to function in the way that it does, as it is mandated to do. We cannot afford to allow the system—and, more important, the people’s belief in the system—to be eroded.
I will not review with you today the Judiciary’s legislative package. Instead, I will comment on what the Judiciary perceives its proper role to be in the legislative process.
It is your responsibility as lawmakers to establish public policy for the citizens of Maryland. When the Judiciary contemplates the impact of the bills you introduce, it does not take a position on matters that are within the purview of your prerogative as policymaker. That does not indicate a lack of interest on our part; it is but an acknowledgment of your constitutional role. We do comment, however, on those issues that are central to, or impact, the exercise of our constitutional role. At this point, let me introduce William Missouri, from Prince George’s County and Administrative Judge for the 7th Circuit, who chairs the Judicial Conference’s legislative committee.
We are careful to distinguish our role from that of the Legislature and the Executive. Nevertheless, we are mindful that there are many issues of importance to Maryland citizens that unite us and that ongoing collaboration on those issues often is necessary. For this reason, I renew the proposal I made in my 2001 address, the creation of an inter-branch forum as a vehicle for the leaders of the three co-equal, separate branches of state government to “redouble our efforts here in Maryland to respect our mutual independence while working collaboratively within the context of our respective constitutional mandates to serve all the citizens of our State.” Such a forum will not diminish the independence of the branches of government. On the contrary, it may further heighten the importance of independent branches of government.
With near universal agreement over hundreds of years, we find ourselves today with a legal system that is based not on power or purse, but on the people’s respect for the law and the judiciary that administers it. It is the people’s good opinion alone that preserves the Rule of Law, and the thing that sets our society apart from those where freedom does not exist—this Rule of Law—is the most fragile aspect of our system. It must be preserved at all cost, encouraged and welcomed even by those who do not agree with the outcome of one decision or another.
I leave you with this thought. It is the single-minded devotion to the Rule of Law that appeals to our colleagues from Russia and other countries who struggle to overcome perceptions that their judiciaries are not independent and, therefore, do not have the public’s confidence that justice can be fair and impartial.
I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you, and offer you my best wishes for a most productive Session.