ANNAPOLIS — Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera presented the state’s annual address Wednesday on how the judiciary remains “fundamentally sound” and the constitution continues to stand up for all Marylanders.
Barbera said it’s difficult for the judiciary to review two million cases annually when dealing with emotionally charged cases such as domestic violence, murder and divorce.
That “represents two million decisions that may have a profound effect upon people’s lives,” said Barbera, the chief of the state’s Court of Appeals. “Judges hear emotion-laden cases. … The gravity of those decisions is in no way lost on those who make them. I salute our trial judges for the important work they do every day to uphold the rule of law.”
The state’s judiciary includes Circuit Court that handles criminal and major civil cases that may be decided by juries; District Court responsibilities involve motor vehicle offenses, landlord-tenant disputes and other misdemeanors; and Court of Appeals which hears cases death penalty, redistricting and removal of certain officers, among others.
Barbera briefly explained the state’s 20 of the 24 jurisdictions are in support to upgrade the Maryland Electronic Court System, known as MDEC. The state’s largest jurisdictions that include Prince George’s County would be implemented by 2021, which allows a single judiciary-wide, electronic case management system used by all the courts in the state.
“None of us know what the future will hold, but everyone one of us will be governed according to the rule of law,” she said. “The future of our great state and its people is secure.”
After Barbera’s remarks, Delegate Erek Barron (D-District 24) of Mitchellville hopes the MDEC launch will include a policy on partial expungement of non-conviction offenses.
For instance, if law enforcement charges a person for several offenses relating to one incident, but found guilty on only one or some of them, state law doesn’t allow for any offense to become expunged. The law informally known as “the unit rule” was officially established in 1975.
If passed, the law wouldn’t take effect until 2021 to coincide with MDECs rollout.
Members of the judiciary are scheduled to appear for a budget hearing Wednesday afternoon before the House’s Appropriations Committee. According to a financial summary, the judiciary proposed a $619 million budget for fiscal year 2020, an increase of 7 percent from this year’s budget. It doesn’t include general salary increases.
“So if you keep asking for more money, I think it’s fair that we ask, ‘Are you incorporating in the system the policies that we’re asking for here?’ Barron said. “If you want the money, work with us.”
Less than 10 minutes after Barbera spoke to lawmakers, Republican Delegates Kathy Szeliga and Nic Kipke spoke with reporters on proposed legislation they filed to allow media to bring cameras and audio equipment into a courtroom during criminal sentencing hearings.
According to the six-page bill, a judge can still prohibit cameras in a courtroom under certain circumstances.
Media organizations must request in a 24-hour period before a hearing is scheduled. A judge may request pooling arrangements to broadcast media coverage.
A judge may also prohibit the recording of any statement made by a victim during a hearing.
Kipke admitted judges have disapproved of recording devices in a courtroom, but said other states allow it.
“We’re going to remain optimistic they will be supportive of this,” he said.
Szeliga said judges are elected just like lawmakers and the public should know how the judiciary runs, particularly in a courtroom.
“Of all the three branches of government, the judiciary is the least understood by the public,” she said. “It is time to lift the cloak off what is going on in sentencing [hearings and] to allow the public to see what is going on.”