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No one shows up for Racial, Ethnic Fairness in Judicial Process

March 12, 2003|by MARLO BARNHART

marlob@herald-mail.com

No one showed up Tuesday night at South Hagerstown High School to give testimony at the last in a series of five public hearings held statewide by the Maryland Commission on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Judicial Process.

But neither Maryland Chief Judge Robert M. Bell or commission chair, Judge Dale Cathell believe that means there are no shortcomings in the system, only that many people are reluctant to air their concerns publicly.

"We've always anticipated that most of our information would come from the 10,000 questionnaires we sent out," Cathell said. Those questionnaires will still be received through mid-April.

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Bell said the work of the commission speaks to every aspect of the legal system, civil and criminal. "We want to know what the people who use the system think of its fairness, whether on a big case or small."

The other four meetings were held in Salisbury, Waldorf, Baltimore and College Park.

Originally the hearing at South High had been scheduled the week of the big snowstorm in Washington County and had to be postponed.

Cathell said the data obtained via the hearings and the questionnaires will be analyzed in terms of economic status, ethnic and racial background.

"If the problem is actually poverty and not bias, we need to know that," Cathell said. "It could be they simply couldn't afford a lawyer."

The growing problem of language barriers has prompted a system of translators available in most courtrooms around the state but Cathell said that help often comes too late.

"People need help filling out forms and documents, reading signs in the clerk's offices long before they go to court," Cathell said.

Bell said that since 1984, the courts in Maryland have been supportive of civil cases involving the poor. "Pro bono, or free representation, is available but still only to about 20 percent of the people," he said. "We're still nowhere near meeting the need."

To obtain a questionnaire, call 410-260-1298. Completed questionnaires may be mailed to William L. Howard, Administrative Office of the Courts, 580 Taylor Ave., Annapolis, MD 21401.

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