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Court of Special Appeals chief judge: Court’s caseload too much to handle

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s intermediate Court of Special Appeals needs two additional judges to accommodate its increasing caseload, the panel’s top jurist told state legislators Wednesday.

Court of Special Appeals“We are overwhelmed,” Chief Judge Peter B. Krauser said in urging the House Judiciary Committee to support legislation to increase his court’s bench from 13 to 15 judges.

The Court of Special Appeals’ current complement of 13 judges has remained unchanged since 1977, while the number of cases heard by each judge has climbed from 115 to 157 per year, Krauser said in testifying before the House Judiciary and Senate Judicial Proceedings committees in back-to-back hearings.

“Our caseload is not going to diminish,” Krauser told the Senate panel. “It’s going to gallop ahead.”

Krauser said civil litigants and criminal defendants have a right to appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, which, with very limited exceptions, must hear each appeal. As a result, each of the 13 judges writes between eight and 12 opinions per month, he said.

In addition, the court’s civil appeals have increased in complexity, Krauser said. Since 1977, the average length of published civil opinions has increased 236 percent, while the average length of all its reported opinions rose 138 percent, he added.

“It is very hard to take a vacation,” Krauser told the Senate panel.

Krauser’s testimony regarding the judges’ opinion-writing load gained the apparent support of Sen. Brian E. Frosh, who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“It’s like having a term paper due every couple of days,” said Frosh, D-Montgomery.

No one testified in opposition to the cross-filed legislation, Senate Bill 239 and House Bill 83, at either hearing.

The Court of Special Appeals is not the only court that would see its bench increase under the legislation, which Senate and House leaders introduced this session at the Maryland Judiciary’s request.

Queen Anne’s County Circuit Judge Thomas G. Ross, who joined Krauser at both hearings, testified in favor of the measure’s call for increasing by one the number of circuit court judges in Calvert, Carroll, Cecil, Frederick and Wicomico counties.

Ross, who chairs the state’s Conference of Circuit Judges, said the boost in judges is necessary to accommodate the 16 percent increase in the population of those five jurisdictions in the past 10 years, compared to a 9 percent increase statewide.

Chief Maryland District Court Judge Ben C. Clyburn spoke in support of the bill’s provision calling for four additional district court judges — one each in Baltimore city and in Charles, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Clyburn said he would ideally like to see an increase of 17 district court judges statewide but that four is a more realistic request given the state’s challenging financial situation. The General Assembly has added no new district court judges since 2006, he added.

The addition of the 11 appellate, circuit and district court judges — as well as their support staffs and related expenses — would add $3.2 million to the state budget next fiscal year, which begins July 1, according to the Maryland Judiciary.

Krauser, in pressing for the two additional Court of Special Appeals judges, said three states with populations smaller than Maryland’s 5.8 million have larger intermediate appellate court benches: Wisconsin, with 5.7 million people, has 16 judges; Minnesota, with 5.3 million people, has 19 judges; and Colorado, with 5 million people, has 22 judges.

“It is not extraordinary for a state to have more than 13 judges” on its intermediate court, Krauser told the Senate panel.

Under the legislation, the two additional Court of Special Appeals judges would hold at-large seats, not tied to any particular jurisdiction.

If enacted, the law calling for more judges would go into effect July 1.