The vacancy on Maryland’s top court appeared to be ideal for John P. Morrissey, chief judge of the Maryland District Court.
The particular Court of Appeals seat is reserved for an attorney or judge from Prince George’s County — where Morrissey has lived since childhood — and became available in June, when Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. reached the state’s mandatory judicial retirement age of 70.
“Who doesn’t aspire to be on the highest court in the state?” Morrissey said of the conventional wisdom that the seat would be coveted by every lower-court judge.
But Morrissey said he never even considered applying for the seat, now sought by Court of Special Appeals Judge Michele D. Hotten, Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Sean D. Wallace and attorney Michael J. Winkelman, a partner at McCarthy & Winkelman in Lanham.
“I am very happy with where I’m at,” he added. “I like my job.”
In that job, Morrissey oversees not only the state’s primary trial courts but the Maryland Judiciary’s $75 million project to switch the entire court system from a paper-based format to electronic filing. Morrissey also supervises the Judiciary’s Appointed Attorneys Program, under which Maryland lawyers can opt to represent arrested individuals at initial appearances before district court commissioners.
In addition, Morrissey is the de facto landlord for the district court’s 43 buildings across the state, making sure the lights go on and the plumbing works. He also represents the district court before General Assembly committees.
“It’s never dull,” Morrissey said of being chief. “I’m very busy.”
‘We’ll get better’
Morrissey, 50, had been a district court judge in Prince George’s County for nearly nine years when Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera named him chief in the spring of 2014. He took the helm on June 1, 2014, succeeding Judge Ben C. Clyburn, who retired.
Among Morrissey’s first duties was implementing the e-filing system last October in Anne Arundel County circuit and district courts, as well as in the state courts of appeal. The judge said he is “very proud” of Anne Arundel for serving as the guinea pig for the Maryland Electronic Courts project, which will spread to the Upper Eastern Shore in February and throughout the state within the next few years.
MDEC brings the traditional paper-based functions of judges, lawyers and clerks into the paperless age, a technological change that involves adjustments and troubleshooting, he said.
“We’ll get better,” Morrissey added. “The rollouts will be much easier.”
The Appointed Attorneys Program was the Maryland General Assembly’s solution to the Court of Appeals’ 2013 decision in DeWolfe v. Richmond that arrested individuals have a state constitutional right to counsel at the initial hearings when commissioners decide whether a person should be held in custody pending trial or released on their own recognizance. Legislators balked at the public defender’s estimate that such representation would cost the office $30 million annually and assigned the function to the Maryland Judiciary with a budget of $10 million per year.
Morrissey has voiced ethical concerns with having the neutral judiciary oversee a program that provides defense counsel. However, he said those qualms have been assuaged by the public defender’s office and local law schools assisting in the training of the attorneys, who are paid $50 per hour for handling the initial hearings.
“I think it’s running pretty smoothly right now,” said Morrissey, adding that the program has come in at $8.2 million, saving the state nearly $2 million — and reminding him of his undergraduate years at James Madison University, from which he graduated in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Still hearing cases
But Morrissey said he was not as prepared for his landlord duties, which came into clear focus in February when he got the call that a pipe had burst in the Prince George’s County Circuit Court, which also houses the district court, in Upper Marlboro.
“I never thought that I would have to deal with a broken pipe that would cause a courthouse to close for two weeks,” said Morrissey, a 1989 University of Baltimore School of Law graduate.
These administrative duties leave little time for Morrissey to hear cases. However, he said he intends to preside over more cases as he continues to visit district courts across the state, as he did on a recent sojourn to Salisbury.
There, he heard a case involving a motor-vehicle crash involving a young driver. Morrissey said he was heartened to see the teenager’s family in attendance.
“Half of my punishment is already done,” Morrissey said, noting that the parents will handle the other half.
While he misses the daily work of being a judge, Morrissey said the responsibilities of being chief are better suited to his personality.
“I like being out interacting with a lot of people on a lot of different topics,” said Morrissey, who grew up the youngest of six children. “It’s challenging intellectually.”
John P. Morrissey
Education: B.B.A from James Madison University and J.D. from the University of Baltimore School of Law.
Background: Joined Venable LLP as an associate in 1989. Served as a partner at Morrissey Brothers P.C. from 1992 to 2006. Was counsel to the Prince George’s County Board of Education from 2003 to 2005. Served on the Attorney Grievance Commission’s Peer Review Committee. Appointed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to the District Court of Maryland, District 5, Prince George’s County, Jan. 6, 2006. Appointed Chief Judge, Maryland District Court, June 1, 2014, by Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera.
Current position: Chief Judge, Maryland District Court.
Author: “Equal Access to Pole Attachment Agreements: Implications of Telephone Company Participation in the Cable Television Industry,” 18 University of Baltimore Law Review 165 (1989)
Personal: Lives in Prince George’s County with his wife and their two children.