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Pressure on delegation to fund 5th judge

November 03, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

It was big news back in 1964 when State Roads Commission Chairman John B. Funk told some local folks that when Interstates 70 and 81 finally criss-crossed in Washington County, the area would see major development and business expansion that citizens would applaud.

In a speech to the Hagerstown Jaycees, Funk said that "a community embraces an expressway like a father embraces a new baby."

And so it did, but the roads that have brought new business have also brought something that no one foresaw back in the mid-1960s - an influx of out-of-state drug dealers. At this point Washington County's Circuit Court handles the sixth-highest criminal caseload in the state, even though it has only four judges. Compare that to Harford and Howard counties, both of which handle hundreds fewer cases each year, though each has five Circuit Court judges.

Is this because Democratic governors have taken revenge on Washington County, which usually votes Republican in statewide contests? Maybe, but it's more likely that the court system here is a victim of its own efficiency, clearing more than 90 percent of the cases it handles in a timely fashion.

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That was just one of the facts Judge Frederick C. Wright III explained recently during this year's court "ride along" event. Those who attended didn't actually ride anywhere, but listened as Wright explained how the system deals with an increasing load of civil, juvenile and criminal cases, then observed the courts in action.

I haven't covered court for a long time, so I had forgotten how laborious and time-consuming its procedures can be. We sat and watched Judge Donald Beachley preside over jury selection, asking potential jurors if any of them had served as police or corrections officers, knew anyone who had or had any preconceived opinions about the case at hand.

I was impressed by the jurors' willingness to serve, though they knew that escaping their duty would have been as easy as saying that they believed that anyone arrested was more than likely to be guilty.

Later we observed the sentencing of a man who pleaded guilty to knocking out his supervisor at a fast-food restaurant after she intervened in his dispute with a customer. The judge's attempt to make sure, with numerous questions, that the defendant understood what was happening, dragged on like a long day in a muggy swamp, only without any mosquitoes to break the monotony.

There were 2,895 such cases handled by the Circuit Court in fiscal 2003, many referred from the District Court. Each case has to be scheduled, witnesses summonsed and evidence produced at the proper time.

For example, on Judge Wright's docket for Oct. 21 there were 13 cases. If things run smoothly, those defendants who want jury trials will notify the court ahead of time. But if they decide at the last minute they want a jury trial and jurors haven't been summoned for that day, the system can come temporarily unglued as the judge, state's attorney and defense counsel try to reschedule, since everyone already has other cases on their calendars.

With nearly 3,000 criminal cases and four judges, that means that each judge must handle 750 of them. But in FY 2003, there were also 5,700 civil cases filed and 826 juvenile matters to be dealt with. The paperwork load is staggering, though Wright did not say this. Just displaying the Maryland sentencing guidelines questionnaire, which has many questions about everything from victim's injuries to the defendant's race, made his point very well.

Wright said the system has functioned well here because of the dedication of everyone involved from the judges themselves to the law clerks, the bailiffs and the secretaries. But from FY 2001 to FY 2003, the annual criminal caseload has gone from 2,400 to 2,800.

So what's the problem? Maryland's chief judge has previously certified that Washington County has a caseload that deserves two new judges, though Wright said that it can function very well with just one additional person.

But unless Washington County's General Assembly delegation speaks up, there will be no additional judge. State Court Administrator Frank Broccolina told Herald-Mail reporter Greg Simmons last week that Chief Judge Robert Bell has no plans to ask for any money for additional judges this year.

Delegates LeRoy Myers and Christopher Shank, who attended the "ride along" said they would talk to Judge Bell before proposing money for an additional judge here.

Please do that, gentlemen. But also be prepared to tell your colleagues in the legislature that you're not asking for a new sports stadium or more bricks for downtown sidewalks, but for some brave person to sit on the bench and deal with the unending epidemic of drug abuse.

You might also remind your colleagues that since Spiro Agnew left office, every judge appointed has been named by a Democratic governor. Gov. Robert Ehrlich made some mistakes in his first year in office, but does anyone in Annapolis really believe that he's not competent to name a judge to the Washington County bench?

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