A bill to mandate the inclusion of judges’ names in Maryland Judiciary Case Search faced pushback Wednesday as skeptics questioned whether the measure would endanger judges or lead to public pressure affecting their decisions.
Del. Robin L. Grammer Jr., R-Baltimore County, introduced House Bill 254 with a bipartisan group of co-sponsors. On Wednesday, he told the House Judiciary Committee that the names of judges are known in major cases that are covered by the media and sometimes “arbitrarily” included in Case Search.
“I think we do owe the public a fundamental statement of facts and what this bill does is it asks for one specific fact: Who was the judge that presided over a case?” Grammer said at the hearing.
The bill would require the clerk to include the name of a judge who presides over a hearing or who takes judicial action on a case in the Case Search database. The Maryland judiciary did not take a position on the bill, according to a spokeswoman.
Grammer said surrounding states include judges in their public case databases and some jurisdictions in Maryland do as well. He is not aware of any threat to a judge stemming from a name being listed publicly.
“My personal feeling is that if there’s anyone looking for any kind of retribution opportunity, the information is clearly available to them,” he said.
Criticism of bill
Del. Wanika Fisher, D-Prince George’s, said as an attorney she wants judges to be neutral fact-finders and would be concerned about their decisions being affected.
Fisher’s concerns were echoed by Del. Debra Davis, D-Charles.
“As a practicing attorney, I have seen the chilling effect it has on judges’ independent decisions when they’re afraid to make a decision based on the facts in front of them because of the fear of public opinion,” she said.
Ricardo Flores, director of government relations for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, said his office opposes the bill because of concerns about public perception affecting judges’ behavior.
“I think that the kind of accountability this bill is pushing, the kind of transparency it’s pushing … can lead to an erosion in the quality of their decision-making,” he said.
Bill co-sponsor Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery, said the issue of public opinion should not be addressed by limiting the public’s access to information about the justice system.
“I actually do share their concern about politicizing judges and the outcomes, however the answer is not to therefore shut the public off from what is going on but to not have judicial elections,” he said.
After the hearing, Grammer said the bill is purely a public information issue and is not about accountability.
“We’re not trying to hold anybody accountable,” he said. “If you’re an average, everyday Marylander and you’re just trying to understand what’s happening in our justice system, it’s not the most transparent or comprehensible thing.”
Research and trends
Information about the judges associated with cases is also the subject of a Maryland Public Information Act lawsuit filed late last year by the Abell Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit.
Abell set out to track trends in individual judges’ bail determinations in Baltimore, according to Vice President Sheryl Goldstein. The information is obtained from Case Search using a tool developed by the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service that “scrapes” data from the site.
The District Court assigns a code for judges in Case Search and Abell filed an MPIA request for the key. The request was denied because the judiciary classified the document as an administrative record. Abell filed a complaint for judicial review in Baltimore City Circuit Court in October.
Sumbul Alam, a student attorney in the University of Baltimore’s Saul Ewing Civil Advocacy Clinic representing Abell, said the Administrative Office of the Courts is “disguising public information” and claiming it is an administrative record.
“This significantly reduces the transparency and defeats the purpose of the Public Information Act,” she said.
On Monday, the Administrative Office of the Courts, the named defendant in the case, moved to dismiss and argued that Abell could not seek judicial review. The rules permit an MPIA complaint if the custodian of records is unsure and asks for a “preliminary judicial determination” about whether a record should be made public. However, the custodian in Abell’s case did not seek such a determination before denying the request.
Professor Daniel L. Hatcher, co-director of the UB clinic, said it is “deeply concerning” that the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, which represents the judiciary, is seeking to hide the identity of judges.
“They’re trying to turn the judge’s name into administrative records by coding it,” he said.
Colin Starger, a UB professor who works in pretrial justice advocacy, said a hearing is public and Case Search is publicly accessible, so it does not make sense to hide the identities of public employees by withholding the key.
“For some very difficult to fathom reason, it’s the position of the judiciary and the attorney general who is representing them … that this is an internal administrative record, so it’s not public,” he said. “From where I sit, that’s not a very persuasive claim.”
Starger said the information could be used to look at caseloads, how fast dockets move and other data points.
“That kind of information is extremely useful for policymakers and advocates and the public at large,” he said.