In Pursuit of Justice
By Chief Judge Robert M. Bell
(This article was published Spring 2013 in The Judges’ Journal, a publication of the American Bar Association.)
Robert M. Bell grew up in Baltimore, and in high school was arrested while taking part in a civil rights demonstration. The ensuing landmark case, Bell v. Maryland, was eventually argued before the United States Supreme Court. Judge Bell attended Morgan State College, and went on to Harvard Law School, where he received his J.D. in 1969. He has been on the bench since his 1975 appointment to the Baltimore City District Court, and has served as a judge on all four levels of the Maryland Judiciary. In 1996, Judge Bell became the first African-American to serve as the state’s chief jurist, responsible for managing more than 4,000 employees and determining the Judiciary’s annual budget.
Maryland judges must retire at age 70, and, as I near the predetermined end of my judicial tenure, I have been asked to provide personal reflections about my time as chief judge and chronicle some of “my” achievements. This is difficult for me – while there have indeed been strides taken and goals achieved, they are the accomplishments of many, many dedicated professionals in the third branch of government, serving the public, rather than of any one individual.
The initiatives and programs presented in this article reflect a set of fundamental guiding principles that I adopted as I began my service as chief judge in 1996. They, which continue to guide the work of the Maryland Judiciary, include: 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.
I think that if I offer some personal history, it may provide some insight to a professional life dedicated, hopefully, to these principles.
Like most of us, the first major influence in my life was my mother. My mother grew up on a farm in North Carolina and had been a share-cropper before she moved to Baltimore with my brothers and me. She had little formal education, perhaps third grade, but she had a strong work ethic and an iron determination that her children were going to make something of themselves. She never faltered in insisting that we get the education that she was denied.
My choice of career was made early – I decided I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I, as a young boy, started reading Erle Stanley Gardner’s “Perry Mason” stories. I was attracted to the idea of helping people, and to fighting for the law and for “right” versus “wrong.”
When I was growing up, Baltimore was a city divided by race. I grew up in East Baltimore, and my mother tried to protect us from the negative aspects of segregation by keeping us secure in our own close-knit community of black stores, barbers, teachers, and other community resources. In 1960, when I was in the 11th grade and student government president at Dunbar High School, I was approached by Morgan State College students, who were recruiting participants for a planned anti-discrimination demonstration to be held on the last day of school in downtown Baltimore. I and a number of my fellow students agreed. After picketing several establishments, about a dozen of us “sat in” at one of the restaurants. When we refused to leave when advised by police to do so, we were arrested. We were charged, tried, and convicted of trespassing.
The case eventually was heard by the United States Supreme Court, but not decided on the merits. Because of changes in the law after the convictions, the Court remanded the case to the Maryland Court of Appeals, to review its prior ruling upholding the convictions. Although the Court of Appeals initially affirmed its prior ruling, it ultimately reversed itself, thus vacating the judgments of conviction, sparing me the burden of being a convicted misdemeanant.
As a 16-year-old defendant in a civil disobedience case, I was privileged to be, symbolically, at least, a part of a legal battle between extraordinary lawyers, including future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on my side and future Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals Robert Murphy on the other. No one would have guessed that Judge Murphy and I would go on to sit on the Maryland Court of Appeals together, or that I would one day replace him as chief judge.
After graduating from high school, I went on to Morgan State College, now University, for my undergraduate education, and from there to Harvard University Law School, receiving my J.D. in 1969.
When I began my legal career, there were very few black judges and few black lawyers deemed qualified to become judges. I did not want to be a judge initially, but because I had the background to get on the list of approved candidates for the District Court, I was urged to do so in the interest of the African-American community. I found that judging was good work and valuable work.
In those days, I had long hair, which was the fashion, and a goatee, both of which some people found outlandish, but, for the most part, no one found my rulings outlandish. While I believed, and still believe, that it is very important for judges to approach problems with sensitivity and an open mind, I also believe that every ruling must be entirely supportable under the law.
I enjoyed being on the District Court. I still think it’s the most important court in terms of affecting people’s everyday lives --- from landlord/tenant disputes, to domestic violence cases, to traffic violations and many other civil and criminal matters. I was not anxious to be, did not clamor to be, elevated to the Circuit Court, but, again, I was asked to do so for sake of making progress in the diversification of the Baltimore City Circuit Court bench and, for that reason, I did.
My journey as a jurist has been, dare I say it, extraordinary. While the pressure to advance and much of my own sense of responsibility are connected to the African-American community, I have always done my best to serve all the people of Maryland, and to apply the law fairly and universally.
There exists a distorted view of the American justice system, one that substitutes cynicism for trust and that questions the integrity of men and women who are sworn to uphold the law.
Judges are constitutional officers and, as such, take an oath of office promising to uphold the laws, state and federal, to the best of their ability, not to substitute their personal views and beliefs for the laws as promulgated through the legislative process. Judges are bound by their oath to apply the laws as written. To intentionally and willfully disregard the will of the legislature in favor of one’s own world view is, and should be, considered judicial activism.
Judges make difficult decisions, and making a ruling requires careful thought and consideration. Judges must approach problems with sensitivity and an open mind, and every ruling must be entirely supportable under the law. This is essential to a strong and independent judiciary. A fair and impartial judiciary fosters a respect for law, ensures the continuance of the Rule of Law, and is a cornerstone in the foundation of our democratic form of government.
A strong judiciary promotes the principles with which I began my service as chief judge: 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. To that end, the Maryland Judiciary, under my tenure, has made progress on these principles in the following major undertakings and programs:
Fuller Access to Justice
Maryland Access to Justice Commission
Each year, the Maryland Judiciary handles more than two million cases.1 For many individuals, understanding how to navigate the court system is a daunting task. For example, do they need legal representation in a civil case? How should they request an interpreter if they speak limited English? Where can they obtain help reading or understanding courthouse signs and forms?
These and other barriers may limit individuals’ ability to understand or access court services, and pose serious challenges to ensuring full access to justice for the thousands of people who interact with the courts each day. In addition, with decreased funding for legal services it is increasingly difficult to meet the growing needs of the poor, indigent and disabled. In 2006, a Work Group on Self-Representation in the Maryland Courts was established to plan a response to the needs of self-represented litigants.
Following the Work Group’s recommendation, in 2008 the Judiciary launched the Maryland Access to Justice Commission to improve the ability of all Marylanders to use the courts effectively and to obtain legal help when they need it, especially those who encounter barriers in gaining access to Maryland’s civil justice system. The Commission consists of representatives from Maryland courts, executive branch agencies, legislators, attorneys, social services and faith groups, and legal service providers led by its chair, Irma S. Raker, retired judge of the Court of Appeals and vice chair, Ben C. Clyburn, chief judge of the District Court of Maryland . Its mission is to recommend and implement changes.
The Commission focuses primarily on expanding access to the state’s civil justice system, particularly landlord-tenant cases, divorce, child custody issues, small claims and debt collection, domestic violence and other non-criminal case types. The Commission also works to increase the public’s understanding of the civil justice system and the civil legal services delivery system. Its most recent report, issued in January 2013, details the positive economic impact of civil legal services in Maryland. The Commission has also issued white papers and reports on the benefits of limited scope representation and of implementing a civil right to counsel.
Since 2011, the Commission has held an annual awards program to recognize individuals, programs and entities in the state that improve the ability of all Marylanders to access the courts or to get legal help in civil legal matters. The Commission has issued several training guides and toolkits, reports, videos, brochures and other educational materials to assist Judiciary employees, members of the legal services community and the bar.
Improved Case Expedition and Timeliness
Maryland Electronic Courts (MDEC)
Beginning in 2001, the Judiciary began to examine its multiple case management systems of varying ages, some decades old. Such an examination was necessary due to their lack of flexibility, maintainability and functionality, as well as their limited capacity for interoperability with present and future systems of our criminal justice partners. Effective caseflow management ensures that the delivery of justice is possible—not only in individual cases, but also across judicial systems and courts, both trial and appellate.
The Judiciary is working with members of the bar and advocacy groups to update all court management systems, including integrating new technology, business processes and management practices. The project, Maryland Electronic Courts (MDEC), will result in the creation of a single Judiciary-wide integrated case management system for all levels of Maryland’s courts. Project goals are: improved public safety; improved access to justice; fair and efficient administration of justice; and the use of reliable technological solutions. MDEC’s new features include the 24/7 ability to send documents to and obtain information from the court from anywhere at any time; e-filing options; and the ability to view, track and archive electronic case records. A pilot site is planned for 2014.2
Equality, Fairness and Integrity in the Judicial Process
Administrative Office of the Courts
The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) oversees and implements court policies. Its responsibilities include personnel administration, preparation and administration of Judiciary budget, planning, and research. It provides guidance, services, support, and resources to the courts, government agencies, communities and individuals; provides clear and accurate information to customers; and undertakes innovative statewide judicial branch policies and programs. The AOC houses a number of critical Judiciary departments and programs that ensure equality, fairness and integrity in the judicial process. One of the largest departments is Family Administration.
The Judiciary’s Department of Family Administration plays a major role in how children and families interact with Maryland’s courts. Its orientation is problem-solving, with the goal of improving the lives of families and children who appear in the court system.
The Department of Family Administration has two major strategies to help families achieve better outcomes when they have a family law conflict. The first is to promote the use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR). The second is to promote a better and fairer trial process if the parties cannot reach agreement out of court.
It is widely recognized that families with family law legal issues do better when they are able to resolve the conflict on their own, whether the conflict stems from a divorce, custody, juvenile delinquency or other legal issue. For more than a decade, since family divisions were first created, the Department of Family Administration has provided support for mediation in cases involving divorce, custody and visitation, marital property, and for families with children in the foster care system. The Department has also supported the use of volunteer attorneys in settlement conferences to help parties resolve their conflicts.
The Department of Family Administration has overseen the creation of family divisions in the Circuit Courts for Baltimore City and the state’s largest counties, and of family services programs in the remaining 19 counties. Family divisions and court-based family services provide a comprehensive approach for families that face not only legal issues but often issues involving housing, substance abuse, and mental health.
Case Search and Public Access to Court Records
The Judiciary’s information technology department, JIS (Judicial Information Systems), operates Case Search, the searchable online database of state court records, includes detailed case information for all Maryland Circuit and District Court cases. Some records date as far back as the 1970s, depending on the jurisdiction. Case Search provides free online access to public information from Maryland case records. In January 2006, Case Search was introduced to satisfy information requests commonly received in the court clerks’ offices. This information includes names of parties, city and state, case number, date of birth, trial date, charge, and case disposition.
District Court Self-Help Center
The District Court of Maryland has free, live online-chat, walk-in, email and phone-in self-help services for people across Maryland who have civil legal issues before any of the District Court’s 35 locations. The District Court’s efforts started in 2009, with a walk-in self-help center modeled after the successful family law self-help centers that operate in Maryland’s 24 circuit courts. In 2011, the District Court made services available to residents statewide by adding online, email and phone-in assistance, thereby greatly expanding the Judiciary’s ability to serve self-represented litigants at the District Court level.
The District Court Self-Help Center assists court users who are representing themselves in small claims, landlord-tenant and other civil courts. Through a contract with Maryland Legal Aid, the self-help center now includes five full-time attorneys and provides basic information, legal advice and assistance in completing court forms. All services are free, helping more than 19,000 litigants in 2012.
The mission of the Judiciary’s Office of Problem-Solving Courts, established in 2002, is to make the citizens and communities of the State of Maryland safer. Its 49 problem-solving courts address crime and related social issues through interdisciplinary approaches designed to improve the quality of life for court–involved individuals and their families.
Drug treatment court programs combine judicial oversight with intensive treatment and supervision. Maryland’s first drug treatment court began in Baltimore in 1994; there are now 40 throughout the state. Through a collaborative multi-disciplinary and comprehensive approach to reducing drug-related crime, drug court team members design an individualized, but intensive treatment program, monitored by the court. Non-compliance gets graduated sanctions, the goal being to restore the defendant as a productive, non-criminal member of society. All major decision points, from screening criteria and eligibility requirements to termination and completion of the program, result from collaborative agreements among drug court team members, led by the designated drug court judge.
Mental Health Court
This program is designed for defendants with mental illness, and substitutes a problem-solving approach for the traditional adversarial criminal court processing. Participants are identified through mental health screenings and assessments, and voluntarily participate in a judicially supervised treatment plan developed jointly by a team of court staff and mental health professionals. There are currently three of these courts operating in the state’s District courts; the first was launched in 2002.
Truancy Reduction Courts
The Truancy Court Program was first implemented in 2001 to combat the large numbers of youths found truant. There are currently six truancy courts operating throughout the state. Research indicates that truant behavior is closely linked to other forms of juvenile delinquency. Truancy Court works to improve school attendance and youth attitudes toward education by building nurturing relationships among family members, the school and the juvenile master or judge. A social worker, counselor or case manager works with families to determine the underlying reasons for poor attendance and makes referrals for community-based services when needed.
Branch Independence and Accountability
A critical component of the Judiciary’s efforts to communicate and advance its institutional objectives is fostering cohesive internal leadership. Formal mechanisms to ensure effective internal communication allow the Judiciary to address statewide issues from a cohesive institutional perspective. The following bodies provide a more effective and representative form of governance.
Maryland Judicial Conference
The Maryland Judicial Conference consists of all judges of the Court of Appeals, the Court of Special Appeals, the Circuit Courts, and the District Court of Maryland. The chief judge of the Court of Appeals serves as chair, and the state court administrator as executive secretary. The Conference establishes committees it considers necessary or desirable and appoints a chair and members of each committee. The Conference considers the status of judicial business in the various courts, and improvements to court practice and procedure. It evaluates and recommends legislation and discusses proposals to improve the administration of justice and the judicial system in Maryland. The Conference meets annually and is part of the continuing education requirement for all Maryland judges, allowing for an in-depth examination of pressing issues.
The Cabinet is chaired by the chief judge of the Court of Appeals and is composed of the chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals, the chair of the Conference of Circuit Judges, the chief judge of the District Court, and the state court administrator. Assisting the chief judge in the superintendence of the Judiciary, the Cabinet considers policies affecting the judicial system.
The Council was formed to oversee the Judicial Conference and serve as the principal policy advisory body to the chief judge of the Court of Appeals. Composed of judges from each court level, administrators and clerks, the Council makes programmatic and policy recommendations affecting the entire court system.
Conference of Circuit Court Judges
The Conference of Circuit Judges serves as a policy advisory body to the chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. The Conference works collaboratively and in consultation with the chief judge in developing policies affecting the administration of the circuit courts. Its 16 members include the circuit administrative judge from each of the eight judicial circuits and one circuit judge elected from each judicial circuit.
Conference of Circuit Court Clerks
The Conference was formed in 1999 to offer advice to the chief judge and the Administrative Office of Courts (AOC). The Conference focuses on technology, personnel policies, records management, legislation, employee professional development, and other issues affecting the operations of the offices of the circuit court clerks.
Conference of Circuit Court Administrators
In 2000, the Judiciary established the Conference to serve as a liaison to the chief judge of the Court of Appeals and other governing judicial bodies, as well as provide a forum for policy discussion, information exchange and professional development. It also provides leadership on matters relating to budget and grant administration, case management, jury system operations, technology, facilities management, human resources and legislation or policies intended for the improvement of the overall administration of the circuit courts.
Conference of Orphans’ Court Judges
Created in 2003, the Conference is charged with advising and making recommendations to the chief judge of the Court of Appeals on policy matters directly affecting the Orphans’ Courts. The body also makes recommendations regarding orientation and training matters.
Conference of Court Law Library Directors
In 2008, the Conference was formed to provide guidance on court library standards, coordination of collection development and acquisitions, retention and disposal of library resources, library funding, legislation, rules or policies intended for the improvement of the overall administration of court law libraries and services to the public and libraries as partners with the courts in providing access to justice through education and the provision of legal information.
Public Trust and Confidence in the Judiciary
Office of Communications and Public Affairs (OCPA)
Created in 1997 as the Court Information Office, the Office of Communications and Public Affairs conducts the Judiciary’s public affairs programs about the Judiciary’s services, activities and outreach efforts. These are directed to the media, government officials, community groups, and Judiciary employees, while providing mechanisms for public feedback. The office has undergone a major structural reorganization, with a mission to direct and oversee a number of Judiciary public relations activities, marketing and branding initiatives, enhanced strategic internal and external communications, greater use of webcasting of Court of Appeals arguments and special events, and its use of 3-D animation and other technologies to expand community outreach.
Judicial Institute of Maryland
The Judicial Institute provides continuing legal education to state judges. All judges must attend courses totaling at least two days per year. Curriculum development, strategic planning, and other activities are directed by the Institute’s Board of Directors and courses are taught by current and retired judges, as well as a number of nationally recognized legal experts and scholars. The Institute also offers a number of special courses and residence educational programs, such as the Family Law and Business and Technology curricula, which provide judges with specialized training to address complex civil cases in those practice areas.
One unique program is the ASTAR initiative for judges. ASTAR, which stands for Advanced Scientific and Technological Adjudication Resource Project, began as a consortium of the Maryland and Ohio judiciaries, in collaboration with the Einstein Institute for Science, Health and the Courts. It educates trial and appellate judges to ensure they are equipped to consider cases that contain scientific and technological matters and can understand and evaluate expert scientific testimony. As a result, Maryland has a cadre of judges who are equipped to decide cases that require an understanding of the terms of scientific and technical reference.
People’s Law Library
The People’s Law Library is a legal information and self-help website maintained by the Maryland State Law Library and supported by the state’s non-profit legal services providers. The award-winning site features legal summaries, links to primary and secondary legal sources and referrals for legal services. The library emphasizes topics that relate to civil cases most frequently involving self-represented parties. Legal content is provided by legal service organizations that primarily serve low- and moderate-income people in need, but does not offer legal advice. Each month, the site receives more than 250,000 page views.
Office of Government Relations
The Office of Government Relations was established in 2001, to strengthen understanding, cooperation and communication between the Judiciary and the other two branches of government. The office has played a critical role in monitoring and identifying key legislative issues that can negatively impact the Judiciary’s ability to provide critical services to the public.
Office of Emergency Preparedness
The Office was created in 2008 to provide technical support and assistance to judicial offices on matters related to emergency preparedness and court security. It is responsible for a range of services that include continuity of operations planning (COOP), coordination with state and local agencies, employee training and legal research.
A great deal has changed in Maryland, and especially in the Judiciary, since I stood before the Court of Appeals as a teenager in the 1960s, appealing my arrest for participating in that civil rights sit-in in that Baltimore diner. We have come a very long way, but there is still a distance to go. In the Judiciary, we talk about striving to provide equal access to justice for all. I see my job as providing access to justice for all, and giving it a human face and a voice that can be respected and understood.
A fair and impartial judiciary is a cornerstone in the foundation of our democratic form of government. It fosters respect for law and ensures the continuance of the Rule of Law. A strong judiciary, independent and protective of the Rule of Law, is based not on power—sword or purse—because it has neither; rather its only power is derived from the people it serves, the citizens’ respect for the law and the judges that administer it. It is the people’s good opinion—its faith and confidence—alone that preserves the Rule of Law, and it is that feature that sets our society apart from those where freedom does not exist to the same degree. This Rule of Law, the most fragile aspect of our system, depends, for its continued vitality, on an independent judiciary.
The Maryland Judiciary is and will continue to be an example of a separate and unobstructed branch of government, a strong judiciary upholding the Constitution and allowing every person—regardless of race, ethnic background, or economic status—to have his or her day in court.
1 Maryland Judiciary Annual Statistical Abstract Fiscal Year 2011. www.mdcourts.gov/publications.html.
2 Maryland Judiciary. Maryland Electronic Courts (MDEC). www.mdcourts.gov/mdec/.