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Bench, bar-related bills have mixed session

Judicial elections, legal aid measures fail; divorce, false claims bills pass

ANNAPOLIS — Not even the prestige of Maryland’s top jurist could convince the General Assembly this year to support a state constitutional amendment to end contested elections for circuit court judgeships.

But its rejection put Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera in strong company. Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor also failed to sway Maryland lawmakers when she made a similar argument five years ago.

The House Judiciary Committee rejected the proposed amendment, which did not even receive a vote by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. It was one of several bench-and-bar-related measures that didn’t gain sufficient traction in the 90-day session. Here is a breakdown:

Judicial elections redux

Under the state constitution, circuit court judges are appointed by the governor and face a contested election within two years of their appointment and every 15 years thereafter.

Barbera said in a statement after the session that “we supported the concept of eliminating contested elections this year and will support the concept in the future.”

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery, who serves on the Senate panel, said after the session he has “great concern” about continuing to leave the selection of judges to popular vote. “The poisonous role that money has begun to play” in judicial elections “cannot inspire confidence among the public,” he said.

DeWolfe: status quo

Another proposed constitutional amendment that failed would have overturned the Court of Appeals’ 2013 DeWolfe v. Richmond decision that arrested individuals have a right to counsel at initial bail hearings before district court commissioners.

The General Assembly’s judiciary committees also rejected measures intended to limit the scope and expense of Richmond by removing the commissioners’ discretion regarding whether to release or remand to custody arrested individuals pending trial

This leaves the Maryland Judiciary in charge of overseeing and funding attorneys who opt to represent indigent arrestees at the initial hearings at a rate of $50 per hour. The Judiciary has set aside about $10 million next fiscal year for its program.

Retaining this status quo runs counter to recommendations a state commission made in December for protecting the rights of arrested individuals in the pretrial process. Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe said after the session: “The legislature saw fit to leave the current system in place. We will work with the Judiciary in any way they want us to to ensure there is competent counsel in all of these hearings.”

Notable successes

All was not failure on the legal front this session.

The legislature passed measures easing the path to divorce for couples without minor children; raising the liability caps for state, county and local governments when they injure people through negligence; rewarding and protecting individuals who blow the whistle on public contractors defrauding Maryland and its localities; and providing second chances for those who have been convicted of a minor crime.

Senate Bill 472 enables childless couples to divorce through settlement agreement, thus forgoing the state’s one-year separation requirement before terminating a marriage. If signed by the governor, Senate Bill 472 would go into effect Oct. 1.

Lawmakers also increased from $200,000 to $400,000 the liability of state, county and local governments for their injury-causing negligence and raised from $500,000 to $800,000 the limit on county and city liability in a single claim involving multiple plaintiffs.

House Bills 113 and 114, if signed by Hogan, would amend the Local Government Tort Claims Act and Maryland Tort Claims Act, respectively. The new caps would apply to claims arising on or after Oct. 1.

Whistleblowers: new protection

The 2015 Maryland False Claims Act will enable people who report fraud by state and county contractors to collect up to 25 percent of the government’s recovery. These individuals will also have legal protection against retaliation by their employer under House Bill 405.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Second Chance Act, if signed by Hogan, will permit individuals to seek court orders shielding from public view certain minor crimes for which they had completed their sentences at least three years earlier.

The shielded conviction would not be considered a conviction, thus enabling people to honestly tell prospective employers and landlords they have not been convicted of a crime. However, law enforcement agencies and companies hiring for positions requiring criminal background checks would have access to the shielded records.

Filing fees surcharge

The General Assembly passed legislation imposing on civil attorneys a 20 to 25 percent surcharge on filing fees beginning July 1, raising the cost by as much as $30.

The surcharges include $30 for circuit court filings, $11 for cases filed in Maryland appellate courts, up to $8 on civil claims filed in Maryland District Court and $3 for summary ejectment, or eviction, cases. The increases will bring in about $5 million annually, which would all go to Plano, Texas-based Tyler Technologies Inc., the vendor of the Judiciary’s fledgling e-filing system.

The system, Maryland Electronic Courts, has been in effect since Oct. 14 in Anne Arundel County courts. MDEC will expand to the Eastern Shore in the spring and across the state over the next several years at a cost of about $75 million.

Dying in committee was a proposal to have the state pay attorneys to represent low-income litigants in protective order proceedings and low-income parents in contested custody and visitation litigation.

On the criminal side, the House Judiciary Committee killed a Senate-passed bill that would have required the Maryland Office of the Public Defender to investigate the financial status of each applicant for the state-funded aid by requesting information on his or her employment and income status from the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Current law requires the public defender to investigate the financial status “when the circumstances warrant.”