Judicial Matters

This was a particularly busy week in Annapolis for the Maryland Judiciary. There was significant activity on several pieces of legislation related to Maryland’s courts and judges. Here is a brief breakdown:

Maryland Electronic Courts (MDEC)

On Friday (3/20) the House of Delegates killed House Bill 54 on the House floor, by a vote of 59-77. This was a Judicial Conference bill to assess surcharges to filing fees for certain actions in the Courts of Appeals and Special Appeals ($11), a filing fee surcharge of $30 for civil cases in the circuit courts, and $6 for reopening a case in circuit court. Additionally, the bill requires a maximum surcharge of $3 for summary ejectment cases, and $8 for all other cases (except criminal). A Motion to Reconsider the vote is expected early this coming week.

UPDATE: On Monday night, March 23rd, after a successful Motion to Reconsider, HB 54 passed 3rd Reading in the house by a margin of 82-88.  The bill now moves to the Senate.

Contested Judicial Elections

The MSBA has supported legislation to abolish contested election of circuit court judges for over 30 years. Generally, because a bill to abolish contested elections requires a constitutional amendment, such bills are rarely seen in non-election years, such as 2015. However, 3 different bills were introduced this session.

Supporters of the movement to end the election component of our judicial selection process were guardedly optimistic that 2015 might be “the year.” However, after Senate President Miller’s announcement the prior Friday (3/13) that this was not going to be the year to pursue abolition of contested judicial election of circuit court judges, a bit of a pall was cast over the upcoming House hearings on 3 separate bills to end such elections on Wednesday, March 18th. Even after the announced withdrawal on the one Senate bill – SB 367 http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/webmga/frmMain.aspx?id=sb0367&stab=01&pid=billpage&tab=subject3&ys=2015RS it was important to proceed with the House hearings. Half of the House Judiciary Committee is new either to the General Assembly, or to the Committee. So, for many of the members, this was their first exposure to the discussion of how Maryland’s circuit court judges are selected.

The Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday was a joint hearing with the Ways & Means Committee (W&M), which traditionally handles election law. Because W&M was the secondary Committee, they sent several members to observe the hearing in the Judiciary Committee room. House Bills 548, 582, and 1071 were all heard together, with Delegates, Sydnor, Kramer, and Hill presenting their bills as the lead panel. Following presentation of the bills by the Delegates, Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera led the principal proponents’ panel, which included, Judge John Debelius, Chair of the Conference of Circuit Court Judges, Judge Alexander Wright, and former judge and Deputy Attorney General, Donna Hill Staton, and MSBA Treasurer, Sara Arthur. That panel was followed by former Attorney general Doug Gansler, and Justice at State Deputy Executive Director, Liz Seaton. Opponents of the measures included retired Judge Thomas Ward, and former Judge William H. “Billy” Murphy.

In all, I would say that the hearing went very smoothly, and inspired spirited discussion, despite the fact that virtually everyone knew that bills would be withdrawn by the Sponsors after the hearing. If you are curious as to how debate on the issue sounds in 2015, I would suggest watching some of the hearing. The video feed of the hearing can be seen here: http://mgahouse.maryland.gov/house/play/dc256ee1-325b-4ae4-8714-433caf06a295/?catalog/03e481c7-8a42-4438-a7da-93ff74bdaa4c

Nonpartisan Judicial Elections
One bit of collateral damage from the demise of the bills to abolish contested judicial elections was the bill that was endorsed the MSBA Law Reform Committee. Senate Bill 679 – Election of Circuit Court Judges – Nonpartisan General Election, was a response to the Court of Appeals decision in the case of Suessmann v. Lamone (2004), which preserved the right of the principal political parties of the state to exclude unaffiliated voters from participating in their primary elections. Under Suessmann, the Democratic and Republican parties could continue to exclude Independent voters from voting in the primaries – including primary judicial elections. Senate Bill 679 would have sought to address that issue by abolishing judicial primaries altogether. Additionally, the bill would have provided for the random ordering of candidate names on ballots.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, sponsor of the bill, withdrew SB 679 after Sen. President Miller announced that the Senate would resume activity on legislation related to judicial selection again in 2016.

SB 679 link: http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/webmga/frmMain.aspx?id=sb0679&stab=01&pid=billpage&tab=subject3&ys=2015RS

Additional Judgeships

House Bill 111, the Maryland Judiciary’s bill to increase the number of judgeships in several jurisdictions has passed the House, and now awaits a hearing in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. The bill would add one (1) circuit court judgeship in Baltimore City, Baltimore, Charles, Montgomery, and Prince George’s counties. Additionally, the bill would add one (1) District Court judgeship each, in Prince George’s County (District 5) and Montgomery County (District 6).
The bill was voted favorably with an amendment by the House of Delegates. The House floor amendment (Del. Dumais; “friendly “ amendment) makes the bill’s effect contingent upon inclusion of “at least $2,049,500 in the fiscal year 2016 State budget,” otherwise the bill would be rendered null and void without further action by the General Assembly.”

HB 111 link: http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/webmga/frmMain.aspx?id=hb0111&stab=01&pid=billpage&tab=subject3&ys=2015RS

As of this writing, the State budget does contain the necessary funding for the judgeships provided for in the bill.

State Budget
• No budgetary or statutory solutions moving forward to replace the Appointed Attorney Program as the State’s response to providing representation for indigent arrestees;
• The budget of the Maryland Judiciary contains $10M for continuation of the Appointed Attorney Program;
• No recommended cuts for the Office of the Public Defender (OPD). Even the Dept. of Legislative Services budget analyst mentioned at the OPD budget hearing how underfunded OPD has been in recent years.
• The 10% budget increase for the operating budget of the Maryland Judiciary has been largely sustained through the House deliberations on the budget; Senate and Conference Committee actions await.

Recently Voted Bills

HB 348 / SB 468 – Civil Right to Counsel – Implementation (Civil Gideon); MSBA Supports – both bills have died.  http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/webmga/frmMain.aspx?id=hb0348&stab=01&pid=billpage&tab=subject3&ys=2015RS

HB 283 – Award of Attorney’s Fees and Expenses – Violation of Maryland Constitutional Right; MSBA Supports – Bill has passed the House, and awaits hearing in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.  http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/webmga/frmMain.aspx?id=hb0283&stab=01&pid=billpage&tab=subject3&ys=2015RS

HB 121 – Criminal Procedure – Drug-Related Offenses – Repeal of Mandatory Minimum Sentences; MSBA Supports – Bill has passed 2nd Reading in House and await 3rd Reading vote this week. http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/webmga/frmMain.aspx?pid=billpage&stab=02&id=hb0121&tab=subject3&ys=2015RS