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Chief appeals judge wants two more judges

January 26, 1999|By MARLO BARNHART

The chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals believes that Washington County needs two more Circuit Court judges, but Judge Frederick Wright says the four local judges can handle the case load.

On a practical note, Wright said there is no room in the county courthouse for a fifth or sixth judge.

Wright said he has told the Washington County Commissioners that the Maryland General Assembly would authorize one more judge for the county, but not during the current 90-day session.

Judges' salaries and benefits are paid by the state, but the county in which they sit must provide and pay for space and staff, he said.

"The General Assembly won't act until there is a plan for space," said Wright, who is the administrative judge for the Fourth Judicial Circuit of Maryland, which covers Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties.

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Four Circuit judges and their staffs are housed in the Washington County Courthouse and annex at the corner of Washington Street and Summit Avenue.

"If we can move all the nonjudicial offices out of the courthouse, then we would have room," Wright said.

That step must be coordinated with construction of a new District Court building planned for Antietam Street and the resulting space that will be freed up in the existing District Court building at West Washington Street.

Wright said asbestos would have to be removed in some parts of the Circuit Court building before remodeling could begin.

Each judge needs a courtroom, chambers, offices for staff, and a jury room, Wright said. Additional clerks would have to be hired to take care of the work generated by those judges.

Wright said the four current judges have handled the increased caseload, preventing backlogs such as those that have forced some metropolitan courts to dismiss cases because they couldn't be tried within the mandatory 180 days.

"The addition of the family law master here has made a tremendous difference," Wright said. "We'd be dead in the water without him."

Dan Dwyer, family law master in Washington County, can handle temporary custody and visitation matters before the matter goes to a judge.

"Then he makes recommendations to the judge who then issues a court order," Wright said.

Of the 4,900 civil cases handled in fiscal year 1998, Wright said 62 percent could be classified as family law matters. That doesn't include child support cases administered by the Department of Social Services, Wright said.

The five Maryland jurisdictions that handle more cases than Washington County all have family law divisions with family law judges.

They include Baltimore City and Baltimore, Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, Wright said.

"We must plan for a fifth judge as soon as space is available," Wright said. When a fifth judge is seated, he wants one judge to be a family law judge.

Wright said one goal would be to have a fifth judge in place by fiscal year 2003. Another goal would be to have only court-related services in the Washington County Courthouse by the following year.

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