Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
(The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Barbera tells lawmakers ‘judiciary is doing well’

Addressing a joint General Assembly session, Maryland’s top judge called for the lawmakers’ help Wednesday as the judicial branch strives to use emerging technologies to make courts more accessible to Marylanders, especially those of low income or who do not speak English.

“The Judiciary is doing well and it is making strides in becoming smarter, more efficient and increasingly accessible to the public,” Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera said in a State of the Judiciary address to the legislature. “The future presents challenges and opportunities alike, and the time is ripe for reasoned and thoughtful reforms. I look forward to working with all of you on behalf of the people of Maryland.”

Barbera’s State of the Judiciary address to the joint session was the first since then-Chief Judge Robert M. Bell appeared before the legislature in 2005. Barbera succeeded Bell in July 2013.

She told to lawmakers that the Judiciary seeks the fair and timely administration of justice, which includes the issuance of well-reasoned decisions by the appellate courts.

Barbera said the Court of Appeals has and will continue to achieve its goal, which she announced in 2013, of issuing decisions no later than the Aug. 31 after the appeals are heard.

“Marylanders want and deserve a judiciary system they can trust,” Barbera said in the House of Delegates chamber. “Put simply: Process counts.”

Barbera, who spoke for about 30 minutes, said Maryland courts will become more efficient with the expansion of the Judiciary’s pilot program requiring attorneys in Anne Arundel courts to submit their filings electronically. The system relieves the clerks’ offices of paper while allowing attorneys and judges to pull up filings and motions at the touch of a mouse.

The Judiciary plans to phase in the Maryland Electronic Courts project statewide within the next few years at a cost of about $75 million.

The MDEC project will provide “better and more cost effective service … to all the people who access courts every day,” Barbera told the senators, delegates and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., who also attended the address.

Barbera praised the Anne Arundel circuit and district courts for being the proving ground for the MDEC project, saying they were willing “to boldly go where no court has gone before.”

Barbera’s State of the Judiciary address was well attended by her fellow judges, including all six of her colleagues on the Court of Appeals, Court of Special Appeals Chief Judge Peter B. Krauser and Maryland District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey.

The state of the Judiciary must be measured “by reference not only to the quality of the justice we dispense but also to the vigor with which we pursue the ideal of achieving justice, for all,” said Barbera. “That is our charge from those we serve, the people of Maryland.”

In that vein, Barbera said the Judiciary will put renewed focus on ensuring court access for the young and elderly victims of abuse or neglect.

“Young children are vulnerable, of course, simply because they cannot fend for themselves,” said Barbera, 63, recalling her early career in the 1970s as an elementary school teacher in Baltimore. “Many of the oldest among us are rendered vulnerable by physical or mental infirmities that lead them, directly or indirectly, into our courts.”

Barbera said she will be hosting in May a national conference of state chief judges on reforming the juvenile justice system. The Mid-Atlantic Conference on Juvenile Justice Reform is co-hosted by the National Center for State Courts and is part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative, she said.

“Every day, in Maryland, young children – some no more than a few days old – enter the court system” as children in need of assistance from an abusive or neglectful adult, Barbera said.

“Juvenile delinquency and adult criminal behavior are more likely to follow for these children than for others more fortunate,” she added. “We simply cannot afford to ignore the damage done to these young people, and by extension, to all of us. Action must be taken and, with your help, I know it can and will be done.”

Barbera also praised the work of the 36 drug courts statewide that provide help rather than incarceration for users of illegal drugs, as well as other “problem-solving courts” specializing in defendants with mental health-issues and truancy or who are veterans.

“Over time, as our society changes, so too does our approach to the cases before the courts,” Barbera said.

“Not all case types are best handled in the traditional courtroom hearing or trial setting,” she added. “Programs such as problem-solving courts seek to redress, with an eye toward reducing recidivism, the root causes that lead some people to repeatedly violate the law. We have recognized that the way we handle these cases must conform to modern sensibilities.”

Barbera’s speech drew praise from Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, a constitutional law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, where the chief judge has taught a criminal-procedure class with her husband, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Gary E. Bair.

“She emphasized that bringing justice to our people is the essential public service,” said Raskin, D-Montgomery. “Chief Judge Barbera is a jurist with the common touch.”

Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin said he, as a legislator, welcomed her call for cooperation and, as a lawyer, appreciated her goals for the court system.

“She laid out a really great vision for the state,” added Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. “The idea of the Judiciary working closely with the General Assembly is a great way to move things forward.”