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Barbera planning for a ‘seamless transition’

ANNAPOLIS — Court of Appeals Judge Mary Ellen Barbera plans to hit the ground running when she takes over as chief of Maryland’s top court on Saturday.

Incoming Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera addresses the crowd at the State House, flanked by Judge Shirley A. Watts and Gov. Martin O’Malley, as Chief Judge Robert M. Bell (far left) applauds her remarks.

Barbera said that to assure “a seamless transition” she will meet Friday with Chief Judge Robert M. Bell — during his last day on the bench — and State Court Administrator Frank Broccolina.

Less immediately but no more urgently, Barbera said she hopes to travel the state and visit all eight judicial circuits and speak with the judges and administrative staff with an eye toward fostering “equal, fair and timely access to justice” for everyone.

“We’re all in this together, every judge in Maryland,” Barbera said.

Barbera’s comments about timeliness underscore continuing criticism of the long lag times in the issuance of many Court of Appeals decisions after the cases have been argued before the judges. Last week, the high court issued decisions in two cases that were heard six and seven years ago.

“When I say timely … I mean from the top and throughout the judiciary,” said Barbera, whom Gov. Martin O’Malley formally named chief at a Wednesday morning news conference at the State House rotunda.

Barbera, a current Court of Appeals judge who will become the first woman to head Maryland’s top court, declined to elaborate on the time she expects the high court will take to issue decisions under her leadership.

A provision of the state Constitution calls for decisions to be rendered within 90 days of argument, but the Court of Appeals ruled in 1908 that the deadline is discretionary. At less than 3.4 months, Barbera’s average time to issue her last 10 opinions was not far off the mark at the end of the 2012 term.

Barbera’s leadership of the Court of Appeals begins Saturday, when the current chief, Robert M. Bell, reaches the state Constitution’s mandatory retirement age of 70. As a designee of the governor, Barbera’s continuation as chief does not require confirmation by the Senate.

Despite her stepped-up schedule, the 61-year-old jurist added she will continue to teach — at least through the fall semester — a criminal-procedure class with her husband, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Gary E. Bair, at American University’s Washington College of Law.

Barbera spoke of her plans Wednesday morning, shortly after Gov. Martin O’Malley announced his selection of her to succeed Bell as chief judge and head of the Maryland Judiciary.