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Courts deal with multitude of cases

January 13, 2001

Courts deal with multitude of cases



By MARLO BARNHART / Staff Writer


Faced with mounting waves of criminal and civil cases flooding into Washington County Circuit courtrooms, the county's four judges and one family law master averaged 2,044 cases each during FY 2000.

Instead of being overwhelmed, the judges/law master are handling the deluge, said Administrative Judge Frederick C. Wright III.

"We're not just working hard, we're working smart," Wright said as he talked about the state of the courts in Washington County.

Wright said the number of cases go into a formula which shows that Washington County needs three more circuit court judges.

"So we need three ... but two would do and one is what we could best operate with," Wright said. "Right now, five of us are doing the work of eight."

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Judges, prosecutors and support staff are on standby to take overflow cases, so the dockets keep moving through the system.

Washington County is 10th in population in Maryland but ranks sixth in criminal cases and seventh in total cases in the state, Wright said.

Using a 50-week model, Wright said the fiscal 2000 average was 68 criminal cases, 40 civil cases and 20 juvenile cases per week.

Juvenile cases have decreased in recent years, but only because more and more teens are committing more serious crimes for which they are waived to the adult court, either automatically or after a hearing, Wright said.

Space for a new judge, new courtroom, jury room, chambers and office staff could be in place on the first floor of the annex on Summit Avenue by the summer of 2003, Wright said.

"Once the county treasurer's office is vacated, all that area has to undergo asbestos removal," Wright said.

The Taxation and assessment office has moved to its new location in the Hagerstown Public Square.

The total number of cases during fiscal 2000 showed somewhat of a leveling off, Wright said. But since July 2000, a 15 percent increase in case filings has been noticed through December.

"It's too soon to tell if it's a trend," Wright said. "The big difference is the increase in family law matters."

Also affecting the criminal case picture is the number of jury trial prayers from the Washington County District Court - more than 60 percent of the docket.

In a recent letter to the Maryland State Court Administrator, Wright said he sees no relief from that "burdensome statistic," despite the opening of the new Boublitz District Court building.

Daniel Dwyer is the lone family law master in Washington County. Cases where lawyers aren't needed are often funneled to the family law master in an effort to solve problems before they must go into full court.

In addition to Wright, the other associate circuit court judges are Don Beachley, Kennedy Boone and John H. McDowell.

A relatively new phenomenon affecting civil dockets is the increasing number of jury trials requested by insurance carriers. Those cases often involved three- to four-day trials before juries deciding cases and damages involving accidents and other circumstances, Wright said.

In fiscal 2000, there were 41 criminal jury trials and 32 civil jury trials. While both those numbers are down from fiscal 1999, when there were 59 criminal trials and 40 civil trials, the lengths of the trials is up sharply, Wright said.

Eight civil cases took three to six days while four criminals cases were three to five days long in fiscal 2000.

A steady flow of inmate cases from the three state prisons south of Hagerstown demands a lot of law clerk analysis but not so much courtroom time, Wright said.

Meanwhile, Hagerstown's position at the hub of two interstate highways continues to make it attractive to drug sellers from the north and the south.

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