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Editorial: Justice delayed – a matter of will

The Maryland Court of Appeals’ slow pace in issuing opinions shows a disregard bordering on disdain for those who have a right to expect better.

The 178-day interval between hearing a case and issuing its opinion — a 15-year high — is bad enough. But even that is burning rubber compared to some of the cases unearthed by reporter Steve Lash in “Justice Delayed,” an investigative package The Daily Record published this week.

Mr. Lash cites several cases that took three years or more to resolve. In the worst instance, the court heard arguments more than five years ago and still has not issued an opinion.

What possible reason can there be for taking five years to decide whether a certain gun-crime sentence can exclude the possibility of parole?

Circuit court judges across the state routinely answer the same question on a same-day basis in sentencing. Yet Kevin C. Alston, convicted as a felon in possession of a firearm, finished his five-year prison term and is still waiting for an answer from the Court of Appeals.

How callous must the court be to keep another man, Ramon Lopez, behind bars for two years and seven months on a conviction that all seven judges agree was wrongfully obtained?

The 31-month interval in Mr. Lopez’s case was long even for its author, Judge John C. Eldridge. By The Daily Record’s calculations, Judge Eldridge’s last 10 opinions have come, on average, 24 months after the court heard the case.

Judge Eldridge’s tendencies were well known long before he retired in November 2003, and cannot come as a shock to Chief Judge Robert M. Bell now. And it is the chief judge who keeps assigning the retired judge to hear cases and to write opinions, silently giving his stamp of approval to the “as long as it takes” mentality.

Judge Eldridge declined to discuss the matter, quite rightly pointing out that Chief Judge Bell is the court’s spokesman. But the chief judge is not speaking, either: Given 18 opportunities over the course of six weeks, his only comment to Mr. Lash was that he is “giving it some thought.”

Taking the chief judge at his word, we offer one thought: Stop assigning retired judges to cases if they have opinions outstanding after, say, the 90-day limit set in the Maryland Constitution.

Or, since the court decided more than a century ago that the 90-day limit is only a suggestion, institute a self-imposed deadline more to the current court’s liking. No one wants the judges to rush through a complicated issue, but the U.S. Supreme Court hears and decides cases in the same term. Surely the Supreme Court’s issues are no less complicated than the ones facing the Maryland Court of Appeals.

At a minimum, the Court of Appeals should join the list of state high courts that publish the date of argument on the front of their opinions. It might not increase velocity, but it would increase transparency.

As political scientist Lawrence Baum told Mr. Lash, timeliness on any state’s high court is primarily a matter of the chief judge’s will — his “willingness … to ride herd” on the associate judges.

In Maryland, one would hope the chief judge would be more willing than most, especially in criminal cases.

Our chief judge wears his own wrongful conviction as a badge of honor. After a sit-in at Hooper’s Restaurant in June 1960, he was convicted of misdemeanor trespass — a record that stood until April 1965.

In those five years, the case was the subject of two opinions from the Court of Appeals and one from the U.S. Supreme Court.

In those five years, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Maryland General Assembly banned restaurants like Hooper’s from race-based discrimination.

And in those five years, the young Robert M. Bell came of age. He graduated from Dunbar High School, was attending Morgan State College and working on his application to Harvard Law School.

A lot can happen in five years.

Or, nothing can happen.

Just ask Kevin C. Alston.

One comment

  1. Maryland Esquire

    Kudos to the Daily Record for a good editorial. I often think that lawyers and judges often forget that the things they do can have a real and significant impact on the lives of real people.

    Justice delayed is, indeed, justice denied.