The top jurist of Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals is rightly asking for help in doing his job.
On Wednesday, Chief Judge Peter B. Krauser informed state senators and delegates of just how dire the caseload has become for him and his colleagues. The numbers speak volumes.
For starters, the court’s complement of 13 judges has not changed since 1977. Maryland’s population in 1980 was about 4.2 million; it is now about 5.8 million, an increase of 38 percent.
Those figures closely mirror the increase in the court’s caseload. Each judge currently hears nearly 160 cases per year, an increase of more than 36 percent in the past 35 years.
Here’s the most troubling statistic, however. Each judge writes between eight and 12 opinions per month, or between two and three per week. Between the actual writing of the opinions and hearing the cases, judges have very limited time to (shudder to think) reflect critically about their decisions and the far-reaching impact they might have.
As state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee and supports additional judges, said, “It’s like having a term paper due every couple of days.”
Krauser’s request for aid — he’s asking for two additional judges — comes at an inopportune time. There’s no question that Maryland is slowly finding its way toward more steady financial ground, but it’s still quite a ways from concrete footing.
That could dissuade legislators from granting this request, but it shouldn’t.
One relevant anecdote is about Maryland’s gas tax. The gas tax was last raised in 1993 and state lawmakers have had multiple opportunities since then to either index the tax to inflation or increase it steadily (a penny a year was one proposal that failed) so that commuters could more easily digest the costs.
Now, legislators are scrambling to find any means to plug a crippling hole in the state’s transportation system — a system that has been a drain on economic development throughout Maryland.
The lesson here should be one of forethought and planning. It’s easier to put off tough spending decisions (and the subsequent revenue pain that often comes with them) until things become truly bleak. But all that means is that the problem festers. Those tough decisions will have to be made at some point — why not earlier, when groundwork can be laid to prepare for long-term needs?
Krauser also pleaded for additional circuit and district court judges, all of which would cost about $3.2 million in the coming fiscal year.
That’s a lot of money to the average Marylander, but it’s a relatively small sum in the state’s overall budget. And, if the gasoline analogy holds true, without this funding, the state’s judicial system is due for some very bumpy roads.