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STATE OF THE JUDICIARY ADDRESS
BY CHIEF JUDGE ROBERT M. BELL
BEFORE THE MARYLAND GENERAL ASSEMBLY
JANUARY 24, 2001

President Miller, Speaker Taylor, Ladies and Gentlemen of the 2001 General Assembly, Lieutenant Governor Townsend, Attorney General Curran, Comptroller Schaefer, Treasurer Dixon, Secretary of State Willis, distinguished guests, my fellow Marylanders all.

This is the fourth occasion on which I have addressed you on behalf of the Judicial branch of government.  I continue to be grateful for this opportunity for timely and open communication, for it permits the Judiciary to share with you its legislative agenda and vision for the future. 

I am pleased to report that Maryland's Judiciary has entered the new millennium prepared to meet the challenges facing it and, with the requisite enthusiasm and dedication, to undertake, continue and advance initiatives and programs that further its mission.  The condition of the third branch of government is sound, but like any large, complex system, there are areas that require our attention and your support.  I will identify some of them.

First, let me reintroduce  my colleagues on the Court of Appeals.  In transcending order of seniority, they are: the Hon. John C. Eldridge, Anne Arundel County, the Hon. Irma S. Raker, Montgomery County, the Hon. Alan M. Wilner, Baltimore County, the Hon. Dale R. Cathell, Worcester County, and the Hon. Glenn T. Harrell, Jr., Prince George's County.  Although our newest colleague has been appointed, as you know, she has not formally joined us, we anticipate that will occur on Friday.  Unfortunately Judge Designate Lynne A. Battaglia is not here and cannot be introduced to you formally.   In any event, from Howard County, she will represent Western Maryland. 

In addition to the excellent advice and counsel I receive from my colleagues on the Court, I rely also on the Judiciary's leadership team. Besides myself, this group includes Joseph F. Murphy, Jr., Chief Judge of the Court of Special Appeals; Judge Paul H. Weinstein, Chair, Conference of Circuit Judges, Martha F. Rasin, Chief Judge of the District Court; and Frank Broccolina, the State Court Administrator.   There is one other person whom I want you to get to know, Kelley O'Connor.   She has joined the Court Information Office and, among other duties, is our legislative liaison.  I expect that you will be seeing quite a bit of Kelley during the Session. 

The Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ), comprised of the top jurist in each state, the District of Columbia and territories, which you received warmly on Monday evening, is holding its Mid-Year meeting in Baltimore this week and four of the attendees are with me today:  Gerald VanderWalle, North Dakota's Chief Justice and CCJ president; Annice Wagner, the District of Columbia's Chief Judge and incoming CCJ president, both of whom you met on Monday; Robert Miller, South Dakota's Chief Justice and Chair of the State Justice Institute; and Roger Warren, a retired California jurist, who now serves as the president of the National Center for State Courts, the secretariat to the Conference.

Over the last two years, I have outlined our plans to bridge the gap between the public's perception of the courts and their performance, and the reality of what courts do and how they actually perform. That effort is on-going. We continue to engage in greater public outreach and to strive to provide more and better services for court users and to make the courts more accessible to those who are unable to afford lawyers or lengthy proceedings. The goal is, of course, to inspire the public's trust and confidence.

The events surrounding the controversy about, and resolution of, the recent presidential election demonstrate just how important it is that our system of government, and in particular, the courts' role in it, be understood and the extent to which courts rely upon the public's trust and confidence. Those events  provided a  backdrop and, indeed, a forum for the definitive civics lesson.  As events played out, the courts, state and federal, were called upon, time and again, to perform their mandated role: as neutral arbiter, to provide rational adjudication of the controversy in accordance with the rule of law.  And the parties, as well as the Nation, looked to the courts to play this most important, though, in truth, not unusual part. 

And the judicial process worked. That it worked proved the point, or at least, reconfirmed the notion, that the foundation of this country is the rule of law, the protectors of which principally are the courts. That it worked proved also the genius of our system; who would have imagined that hundreds of years ago the framers of our federal and state constitutions could have forged a system capable of anticipating the unusual circumstances that unfolded just several months ago?

The coverage by the media and the rhetoric by the politicians surrounding the judicial process was, to say the least, disturbing and discouraging. The thrust and effect, with no basis other than the political affiliation of the judge or the political affiliation of the appointing authority, was to politicize the courts and the judges performing their constitutionally  mandated function, in essence, characterizing the process as an extension of the political process. To be sure, judges are not immune from, or above, criticism, nor ought they be.  Indeed, they respect and often welcome criticism when it is informed and "principled," for, as Judge William Henry Hastie once pointed out, "[p]rincipled criticism serves as an invaluable corrective of otherwise unrealized error."  But there  is a difference between "principled" criticism and politicizing rhetoric. Although I believe the chief culprit to be misunderstanding rather than deliberate subversion of the judicial role, whatever the reason, the result is the same: it undermines the effectiveness of the Judiciary and often erodes the public's trust and confidence in the courts.

The rule of law, critical to our system of government, is dependent upon an independent Judiciary, free of, and unfettered by, politics and political constraints. Judicial independence, as it relates to judges and courts, envisions decisions based only on the legal merits, not on the most popular or politically expedient course of action. Courts, more than any other institution, consciously must resist and withstand the pressures of political and public opinion.  Indeed, that is the Judiciary's duty when to do so is consistent with the rule of law. 

An independent Judiciary is, in addition, necessary, as a separate co-equal partner in the system of checks and balances, which also is so integral to our system. That system envisions three co-equal, separate and independent branches.  While, in truth,  neither is entirely separate nor entirely independent, the purpose behind the system of checks and balances is the protection of the citizens against one branch becoming too powerful and the guarding against the potential for excesses and abuses of power.  This is achieved by each pursuing its constitutional mission, asserting, as and when required, its constitutional independence.    The intended result is a dynamic tension between our branches, from which discord and conflict may flow as a natural consequence.  To protect this sacred trust and preserve this delicate, even fragile balance, I propose establishment of an inter-branch forum, made up of representatives from each branch, to ensure that we redouble our efforts here in Maryland to respect our mutual independence while working collaboratively within the context of our respective constitutional mandates to serve all the citizens of our State.

As an institution, the Maryland Judiciary is committed to a set of guiding principles, including: 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.  All that we have done or  sought to do with respect to the programs and initiatives we have championed over the last four years have been, and all that we intend to pursue and accomplish in the future will be, based on these fundamental guidelines.

In the 1999 legislative session, the General Assembly addressed the fiscal role of the State in the funding of the Circuit Courts.  Among the goals the Legislature wanted to achieve by expansion of State funding were those of improving the efficiency and effectiveness of these courts and relieving local governments of some of the financial burdens associated with their share of the funding of such courts.

At our request and your concurrence, the Judiciary developed the Circuit Court Action Plan, which it submitted to the Legislature pursuant to budget language on November 1, 1999. That plan proposed a funding strategy and specific recommendations, premised on the belief that the administration of justice is a responsibility to be shared by the State and local government, one of which neither should be entirely relieved. Therefore, the plan proposed a State and local funding relationship designed to maximize support for changes necessary to improve the system, a clear partnership defined through fiscal and administrative investment in the justice system.  It proposed an increase in the State funding for the Circuit Courts, directed primarily to staff support, courthouse facilities and courtroom security, of approximately $50 million over a four-year period.

In the 2000 Session, you approved legislation implementing, to a significant extent, the first year of the Circuit Court Action Plan - all but the cost of additional family division judgeships determined by the Plan to be necessary to achieve  greater uniformity.  Under that legislation, effective July 1, 2001, the State assumes the cost of standing judicial masters and $10 in jury fees. In this Session, we request approval of the second year of the Plan, through enactment of legislation funding all ten additional family division judgeships that the Plan calls for, law clerks' salaries and the leasing of courthouse space for the Clerks of Court.

This is not the only legislation in which we have an interest. Of vital importance to the Judiciary is its judgeship certification bill, requesting 21 additional judgeships, including the ten family division judges already mentioned, a bill transferring juvenile jurisdiction in Montgomery County from the District Court to the Circuit Court, a bill revising the Child-In- Need-Of-Assistance statute, and a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at improving the Judiciary's ability to respond to domestic violence claims and requests for peace orders.

Sixteen of the twenty-one judgeships for which need has been certified are earmarked for the Circuit Courts.  Of those, ten, two each for Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's Counties and Baltimore City, are the family division judges heretofore referred to as part of the Circuit Court Action Plan. The necessity for these judges lies in the need, in conformity with the law and judicial policy, to bring consistency and uniformity, in practice Statewide,  to the duties of the domestic relations masters. The ability to achieve this goal is contingent upon the additional family division judgeships.

Four of the judgeships are necessary for the transfer of juvenile jurisdiction in Montgomery County.  Montgomery County is the only locality in the State in which  juvenile jurisdiction is not in the Circuit Court. This at a time when the emphasis is on the holistic treatment of family matters, of which delinquency and child welfare cases are a part, and when, with the advent of family divisions and, owing in no small measure to your support, the  services available to families have  grown significantly in the Circuit Courts.   Working collaboratively, the Judiciary, and in particular, the Montgomery County District and Circuit courts, and the local government have agreed that the time has come to effect the transfer of jurisdiction.  Consequently, we are seeking approval of legislation for that purpose, effective March 2002.

The remaining two Circuit Court judgeships are family law judges. One is for the Circuit Court for Calvert County to replace a standing master. The other is assigned to the Circuit Court for Worcester County, but will serve as a family law judge for the entire First Judicial Circuit, including Dorchester, Somerset and Wicomico Counties.

I have certified a need for five District Court judgeships, one each in Baltimore City, Montgomery, Prince George's, St. Mary's and Worcester Counties. The need is reflected in the significant growth in caseloads as a result of peace orders and increases in the District Court's civil jurisdiction.

Nothing has greater significance to a society than the safety and care of its children. Sensitive to this truism, for the past several years, the Judiciary's Foster Care Court Improvement Project has worked hard to enhance our ability to handle such cases more effectively and efficiently.   The result is a foster care plan which offers recommendations for improved case processing and management, and proposed changes to the present CINA law designed to improve the present system.   For the last two years, you have considered our proposed CINA bill and for the past two years, I have come before you to urge its passage.  We trust that the third year will be a charm and that this important tool will be made available to aid our efforts.

The final piece of the Judiciary legislative package that I will mention also involves individuals who seek and need the assistance of the courts for their protection and welfare.  We are proposing a constitutional amendment to empower District Court Commissioners, judicial officers, to issue ex parte orders in cases of domestic violence and in which peace orders are appropriate.  The effect of passage of the amendment would be to afford 24 hour/7days a week coverage for these cases.

Recognizing that the nature of the litigants and the cases confronting the Circuit Courts and the District Court, as well as the role of these trial courts in the justice system and in the communities they serve, have grown increasingly complicated, the expectations of the litigants increasingly more lofty and that  the ultimate effectiveness of these courts will be judged by the quality of their performance, the Judiciary is addressing case expedition and timeliness as one of its principal initiatives. Working together, the Circuit Courts and the District Court are in the final stages of developing statewide case processing time standards, thereby responding to the number one concern heard from citizens in a recent survey of our customers,  cases "take too long" to be resolved.  Trial court benchmarks will permit us to better assess individual courts and determine how each court is performing in relation to the case standards as well as to target specific performance areas requiring improvement. 

As committed as we are to timeliness and expedition, however, we understand that the Judiciary has a responsibility to deliver quality justice.  We are not unmindful of the danger of going too fast, of focusing too much on quantity and not enough on quality.  Thus, our challenge is  not only to become more efficient and timely, but to give adequate attention and time to the handling of each case, to balance, in other words, timeliness and expedition and quality. 

Consistent with the expressed interest of the General Assembly, the Judiciary established family divisions in each of its largest jurisdictions and family law services statewide.   Last Session, I reported on the first full year of operation of the family divisions and our family services programs.  While noting the marked growth and rapid program development and the fact that the courts have utilized State funding to establish a wide range of services to develop an holistic approach to resolving family problems, I identified some of the challenges still facing the family divisions, among them, the need:  to create, statewide, a uniform menu of services for family and children in our courts; to engender greater uniformity of procedure and practice within and between our courts; to establish standards of performance. 

With your support, we have been able to offer to families in crisis a host of legal and programmatic services based resolutely upon the principle to treat the entire family not just the legal matter before the court.  Because a significant number of family law litigants cannot afford representation, the Judiciary has made extraordinary efforts to increase  accessibility to the  legal  system.  Through special project grants, we have become a major supporter of legal services programs for victims of domestic violence. 

We are seeking an increase in our budget  to continue these valuable services to families throughout the State and to continue meeting the identified challenges. 

Maryland, like many other states, is grappling with how best to balance the technological advances which make court information instantly available electronically against an individual's right to privacy. With the capability to access and manipulate court data more easily and rapidly, questions have arisen as to whether traditional rules and practices originally established for paper records should apply to electronic court information. 

To address that issue and to consider the implications of the conflicting rights of access and privacy, I appointed an ad hoc committee.  The committee developed a draft policy and solicited public input.  As a result, it recommended that a larger, more representative group, made up of all interested parties,  take a more comprehensive look at how the Judiciary provides electronic access to data.  I have accepted that recommendation.  Judge Paul Alpert, retired Court of Special Appeals Judge, has agreed to chair this expanded task force.    I am confident that this collaborative effort will produce recommendations that will find the right balance of access and privacy for Marylanders.  I hope to have the members of the Task Force in place shortly.

You will recall that, last year, I reported on the Practical Action Plan developed by the Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission, outlining some of the  recommendations it contained.  One of them was that an Alternative Dispute Resolution Office be established as a State agency.  That transition has begun.  The Commission's work now complete, it has evolved into a court-related agency, the Maryland State Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office (MACRO).  With additional staff, MACRO will continue the  work, begun by the Commission, which propelled Maryland to the forefront in the  area of ADR1.  That includes monitoring the results of the various ADR projects and programs established since the Commission's creation or under its auspices and to implement new ones.  To keep up the momentum, we are again seeking funding for this very successful initiative.

Finally, a word about  business and technology.  Upon receipt of  the Report and 
Recommendations of the Business and Technology Task Force, I forwarded it to Chief Judge Murphy and the Rules Committee, requesting an analysis of what is required by way of rules to implement the recommendations.  A hearing with interested parties, to obtain their input, is scheduled for the end of the month, January 31.  The report was also sent to Judge Alan Wilner, Chair of the Maryland Judicial Institute, the Judiciary's educational arm, for his review. While Judge Wilner has some preliminary ideas as to what can be done educationally, some of which he has shared with me, he believes, and I agree, that no plans can be firmly made until we know what the Rules Committee recommends.  The bottom line is that things are proceeding apace. 

In closing, I return to the governmental blueprint developed by our founders.  By splitting up the essential functions and allocating the responsibility, a not so subtle message was delivered, one that former United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes stated succinctly and eloquently when addressing Congress on its 150th Anniversary: 
"[I]n the great enterprise of making democracy workable we are all partners."  I look forward to continuing that partnership during this Session and beyond.

Thank you for your courtesies and other kindnesses and best wishes for an enjoyable and profitable Session.



1On Thursday, in New York, the ADR Commission will receive an award for significant achievement for the work it has done and the contributions it has made in advancing ADR.