Middle Atlantic Focus Maryland's Judiciary: Working Collaboratively To Achieve Full And Fair Justice

Sunday, May 1, 2005 - 01:00

The Editor interviewsThe Honorable Robert M. Bell, Chief Judge, Maryland Court of Appeals.

Editor: You have said that Maryland has "the best judiciary money can't buy." What do you mean?

Bell: Maryland is blessed with, and fortunate to have, some of this nation's most respected, competent and hardworking judges. Men and women of the highest character, they bring integrity, dedication, understanding and humanity to a calling that is difficult, often thankless, and too often frustrating. Day-in and day-out these extraordinary men and women cope with and dispose of huge and ever increasing caseloads, often characterized by complex and multifaceted issues, with dedication and remarkable stamina and with a real and full commitment to the fair and even - without bias or prejudice - dispensing of justice consistent with the laws that the state legislature has seen fit to enact. Upon becoming a judge, having elected to serve a public calling and to forego any opportunities for much greater personal financial gain, these men and women are required to set aside personal preferences and act only in the public interest. Moreover, from that time forward, their actions, their decisions, and the results of their deliberations have an awesome impact on the basic fabric of our society. Chief Justice John Marshall, one of the greatest of the chief justices of the United States Supreme Court, observed more than 160 years ago that "[t]he judicial department comes home in its effects to every man's fireside; it passes on his property, his reputation, his life, his all." That is as true today as it was then. Consequently, unlike many other public employees, they, like Caesar's wife, must always be above reproach.

Editor: What principles guide Maryland's judiciary?

Bell: Fuller access to justice; improved case expedition and timeliness; equality, fairness and integrity in the judicial process; branch independence and accountability - these principles guide, and will guide, all that we do, or have done, programmatically, and all of our initiatives. In the same connection, everyone in the judiciary works hard to maintain the public's trust and confidence in our system of justice. This combination is appropriate, even natural, for the anticipated result of compliance with the guiding principles will be measured in terms of the public's trust and confidence. That, in turn, simply recognizes the wisdom of the observation of United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall: "We must never forget that the only real source of power that we as judges can tap is the respect of the people."

Editor: Maryland, like other states, has been confronted with severe budget constraints. What has been the impact on the judiciary?

Bell: Our trial courts handle nearly 2.5 million cases each year with quiet efficiency and skill, without fanfare. Given the economic condition of the state and although there has been a demonstrated and certified need each year, until this year we had not requested additional judgeships since 2002. Our caseloads have been managed, with considerable and increasing difficulty, through the use of innovative case processing measures and the use of retired judges, some working without pay. Our budget deficits have had a real impact on our operations. Here are three examples. Unfilled court personnel vacancies have resulted in staff shortages, impacting the level of service our offices can provide to the public. Although we value education and training programs for court personnel and judges, we have foregone annual meetings of the Maryland Judicial Conference, an invaluable opportunity for judicial education. Despite the ever-increasing volume of work, exclusive of any COLA, Maryland judges have received only two pay increases in the last 10 years. This has resulted in a decrease in the real pay of Maryland judges over the years. Recognizing the quality of the Maryland judiciary and its critical importance to an ordered society, the Judicial Compensation Commission, created by the state legislature in 1980, has recommended salary increases to be phased in over four years. Maryland judges deserve pay that is fair, equitable and competitive and sufficient to permit them, as the Compensation Commission legislation requires, to "serve without unreasonable economic hardship." Fortunately, this year the Commission's recommendations were enacted, providing well-deserved recognition of the hard work and dedication of Maryland jurists.

Editor: Please give an update on the Racial and Ethnic Bias Commission created in 2002 and chaired by Judge Cathell.

Bell: The commission presented its final report to the Court of Appeals last June. That report contained 19 recommendations based on feedback received from the series of public hearings held across the state and questionnaires sent to 10,000 randomly selected litigants. The main recommendation was to establish a formal discrimination complaint procedure for court users. Other recommendations included informing and educating the public that certain departments such as the police, prosecutors and defense attorneys are not controlled by the courts; developing and holding public workshops to explain and discuss court procedures, services and programs; hiring and retaining multilingual employees in the courts; simplifying and streamlining the Rules of Evidence and Procedure in an effort to make the judicial process more accessible for self-represented litigants; and requiring new members of the bar to participate in at least one training session on racial, ethnic and economic fairness. The report is an excellent piece of work, perceptive and incisive and worthy of implementation. Just as he did in shepherding the work of the commission, I am sure that Judge Cathell will see that it is implemented.

Editor: Please give an example or two of how the judiciary is staying abreast of technology advances to enhance the efficiency of Maryland's justice system.

Bell: In 2002, I reported on the start-up of the Business and Technology Program, an initiative inspired and urged by the state legislature and implemented with its input. The capabilities of judges in that program are being expanded, as is the program's value. Maryland has joined with Ohio and California to form the Advanced Science and Technology Adjudication Resource (ASTAR) program, a consortium that initially will train 45 resource jurists. In addition to advanced science and technology adjudication skills, those judges will be prepared to adjudicate cases that arise from the challenging advances in the life sciences, genetics, biomedicine, biotechnology and the neurosciences as well as assist others in doing so. The idea is that those judges will not only be able to handle cases involving their specialized expertise, but will be a resource for other judges who do not have that expertise.

In 2001, Baltimore City Circuit Court launched an e-filing project for processing asbestos litigation. During the two-year pilot, more than 80,000 documents were filed, resulting in 1.5 million documents served between the parties. Building upon this successful model, the District Court of Maryland will begin implementing a pilot involving the filing of pleadings and papers in high volume landlord/tenant cases in Prince George's County. Another pilot underway is a collaborative effort between the court and the state police to bring e-ticketing to the state.

Editor: Congratulations on winning a national award for outstanding leadership in the field of conflict resolution from the American Bar Association. What are your views on alternative dispute resolution (ADR)?

Bell: I have long believed that the judiciary has an ethical obligation to fulfill in its role as society's problem solver. We need to help create a more civil and peaceful society, where people routinely have the skills to resolve their own disputes, and only turn to the courts as decision makers of last resort.

In 1998, I created and chaired the multi-disciplinary, high level Maryland ADR Commission, which developed a practical action plan to advance the appropriate use of ADR in Maryland, both within and beyond the courts. We established a statewide dispute resolution office - the Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office (MACRO) - to implement the plan and ensure continued progress in this area. Our innovative work, collaborating with thousands of people across the state, has led to a great deal of ADR growth in Maryland, and captured the ABA's attention.

Editor: Have you involved businesses or corporate counsel in your ADR efforts?

Bell: MACRO conducted a survey of large, medium and small sized Maryland businesses, and queried their corporate counsel and human resources directors about their use of ADR. Last year, we released the results of the study. While national research found that close to 80 percent of Fortune 1000 businesses report using mediation and arbitration, only about 30 percent of Maryland businesses reported the same. Only about 15 percent reported tracking cost savings data related to ADR use, or taking other steps to create comprehensive conflict management systems. Still, the companies using ADR reported saving time and money, preserving business relationships, avoiding bad press, improving their public image, increasing employee satisfaction and retention, and generating creative business solutions.

The Maryland courts have instituted a "business and technology track," which encourages using knowledgeable mediators to resolve complex business cases. As court referrals to ADR increase, I believe the business community will come to view ADR as a routine and helpful step in the litigation process. While ADR is not a panacea, and is not appropriate in all cases, a good number of Maryland businesses recognize that it is a powerful tool, which can add value far exceeding the relief courts are authorized to provide.

MACRO has a pledge program for Maryland businesses and law firms. These organizations have pledged to use ADR prior to litigation in all cases they deem appropriate. To get a list of organizations that have pledged or to arrange a presentation about ADR, call Rachel Wohl, MACRO's Executive Director, at 410-841-2260.

Editor: How have the pro bono rules and mandatory pro bono reporting affected access to justice in Maryland?

Bell: Maryland has always had a rich history of pro bono service. That history is based on the principle that equal access to the justice system is fundamental to our democracy. The Court of Appeals adopted new rules a couple of years ago which established a statewide Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services and required each jurisdiction to establish its own local pro bono committee. Those new rules also required all Maryland lawyers to report annually on their pro bono service. The mandatory reporting requirement has led to increased awareness among Maryland lawyers about how important it is that they contribute to their community by serving pro bono publico. The data collected from the over 31,000 lawyers who report each year has given us valuable information about how attorneys serve the public, and how we can design legal services programs to capitalize on their expertise. Information on where attorneys are located, the areas in which they practice, and the areas in which they provide pro bono service help us know how to target existing programs to help members of the public find the legal help they need. The local pro bono committee and the statewide committee are using that information to develop local and statewide plans to promote pro bono service. Pro bono services will never be able to meet all the legal needs of the poor - but the new rules and the work of the committees will help us make sure those efforts are as effective as possible.

Editor: Thank you, your Honor, for sharing with our readers a few highlights from your State of the Judiciary address delivered this past February. Where can they learn more?

Bell: The judiciary provides many resources for the public on our website. To read my full State of the Judiciary address, visit www.courts.state.md.us/ soj2005.html.