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Under Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, the Court of Appeals has about six weeks and just 25 opinions to go to fulfill her promise of deciding every case in the same term in which the court heard it. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

The chief judge’s first year

Barbera wins kudos for ‘prompt justice,’ cooperative approach

Maryland’s top court is “right on target” to achieve its goal of deciding by Aug. 31 all of the 127 cases it has heard since its term started in September, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera said Thursday.

Hitting the self-imposed deadline — and there were 25 cases outstanding as of Friday — would be a personal victory for Barbera, who marked her first anniversary as chief on July 6.

It would also stand in stark contrast to the high court’s recent history, in which many of its cases were not decided until years after they were heard.

To help make the Aug. 31 deadline, the high court reduced the number of cases it heard this term to 127, Barbera said. That’s down from an average of 146 cases per term for the three prior terms, which run from September to August, according to Maryland Judiciary data.

However, Barbera said she expects a different metric — the number of cases the court accepts for review — to remain relatively unchanged at about 135 cases per term.

As a result, some parties will have to wait longer for their promised day in court, as oral arguments on more cases are shifted into the following term, Barbera acknowledged.

But all litigants benefit from the assurance that a decision will be rendered no later than the Aug. 31 after their appeal is heard, she added.

“We can control the flow [and] we slowed it down a bit this year,” Barbera said of the high court’s caseload.

With seven weeks left in the current term, the court has agreed to hear 107 appeals so far, and has two more sessions scheduled in which to review petitions, according to Judiciary data.

Pushing more cases to the following term ensures decisions are made in a timely fashion without causing a reduction in the quality of the rulings, she added.

“You can’t let effectiveness suffer for efficiency,” Barbera said during an interview Thursday in her chambers in the Montgomery County Circuit Court building in Rockville. “It’s my firm belief that in the end, we get the delivery of our decisions more quickly and efficiently.”

Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe, whose office was critical of the high court’s years-long delays in deciding criminal appeals, called the pledge of same-term decisions “a wonderful step in the right direction in terms of getting justice for our clients in the Maryland courts.”

Barbera has “reached out to all levels of the court system and partners in the criminal justice system to cooperate,” DeWolfe said Friday. “Everyone that I know has responded very positively to her leadership and her vision for the future the judiciary. I think she has had a stellar first year.”

Retired Court of Appeals Judge Dale R. Cathell, who continues to hear cases when specially assigned by the chief judge, also praised Barbera’s approach.

“What she has done so far in terms of court efficiency comes close to magnificent,” Cathell said Friday.

“The court during her tenure has gone from a situation where opinions were filed five and six years after oral argument to a point where every opinion will be required to be filed within 11 months and in some cases within a month or two,” he added. “Efficiency is almost an automatic requirement for any court at any level. Prompt justice is what people deserve, whether it is in the civil or the criminal arena.”

Other goals

Ensuring timely decisions was not the only demand on Barbera’s attention in the last 12 months. In her larger role as leader of the state’s judicial branch, she also has ultimate responsibility for ensuring attorneys are available to represent indigent people at the 153,000 initial bail hearings held annually before District Court commissioners across the state.

The Appointed Attorneys Program follows from the Court of Appeals’ Sept. 25 decision in DeWolfe v. Richmond, which found a state constitutional right to counsel at the initial proceedings. The program went into effect July 1 by order of the Court of Appeals.

Attorneys who sign up for the program through the Judiciary are paid at a rate of $50 per hour plus mileage and tolls. Lawyers can also opt to volunteer their time.

In the General Assembly’s past session, Barbera took the controversial step of appearing before Senate and House committees to discuss the Judiciary’s Richmond-related program while a petition to reconsider the landmark decision was pending before the Court of Appeals. However, she made sure not to respond to any question pertaining to the case itself or the pending petition.

“I am aware of the limits,” Barbera said Thursday.

The high court later accepted the petition and upheld Richmond in March.

The General Assembly ultimately funded the Appointed Attorneys Program by earmarking $10 million from the Judiciary’s $500 million fiscal year 2015 budget. While that meant shifting money from other Judiciary programs, Barbera declined to criticize the legislative decision.

“We’re making it work,” she said.

State Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin said Barbera has fostered “terrific relationships” with legislators, particularly on the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, on which he sits.

“She clearly wants to make the courts accessible, transparent and user friendly,” said Raskin, D-Montgomery.

Barbera said her goals as head of the Maryland Judiciary include achieving “meaningful access to justice” for the poor and disabled, whether through legal-services agencies or by attorneys volunteering their services. Barbera said she also wants to improve the juvenile justice system by answering the question, “What haven’t we been doing that we can be doing to achieve better outcomes?”

In pursuit of those goals, Barbera said, she has toured all the state circuit courts and is nearly finished visiting all the district courts to get the views of judges and court staff.

“It was crucial for me to spend this first year doing a lot of listening,” Barbera said.

“We [the Judiciary] are about doing whatever is necessary and feasible to achieve meaningful access,” she said. “Everything flows from that.”