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Senators consider name change for Maryland’s top two courts

Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals building in Annapolis. (File photo)

ANNAPOLIS – “Justice” might finally come to Maryland.

A proposed state constitutional amendment now before the General Assembly would change the name of Maryland’s top judicial tribunal from the Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court of Maryland and the title of its jurists from judge to justice, with the chief judge becoming the chief justice.

The name of Maryland’s intermediate court would also change, from the Court of Special Appeals to the Maryland Appellate Court. Its judges, however, would still be called judges.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera said the top court’s proposed name change was necessary because the current name is “the source of much confusion.”

Many non-lawyers and attorneys from out of state justifiably presume Maryland’s court of last resort would have the name “Supreme” – as is the case in every other state except New York, which also has an ultimate Court of Appeals, Barbera told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Thursday.

Creating a Maryland Supreme Court would be “a long overdue change” that would clarify matters for the people of Maryland and elsewhere, Barbera said.

Barbera did not address the proposed change from “judge” to “justice.” The impetus for that move began with Barbera’s predecessor.

Former Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, who stepped down in 2013 upon reaching the state’s mandatory judicial retirement age of 70, used to chide attorneys who mistakenly referred to the high court’s judges as “justices,” telling them that there was no justice in Maryland.

Court of Special Appeals Chief Judge Matthew J. Fader told the Senate committee that changing the name of his court was necessary because the current name has become a “misnomer.”

“Court of Special Appeals” was correct when it reviewed only a “special” category of cases, namely criminal appeals, Fader said. However, he continued, the court has for decades heard all manner of appeals from the state’s circuit courts.

Furthermore, Fader said, the word “special” has led many non-lawyers and attorneys from outside the state to assume the state’s second-highest court is above the Court of Appeals.

With a nod to Barbera’s call for the “Supreme Court of Maryland,” Fader said the Court of Special Appeals was “the second-least aptly named court in the country.”

Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters, D-Prince George’s, is the chief sponsor of the proposed amendment, Senate Bill 595. Del. Ron Watson, D-Prince George’s, is the chief sponsor of the companion bill in the House of Delegates, House Bill 1329.

To become a constitutional amendment, the proposal must be passed by three-fifths of both the House and Senate and then be approved by Maryland voters in 2020.

Barbera also spoke Thursday in support of legislation to change the name of Maryland’s State Law Library to the Thurgood Marshall Law Library, in memory of the civil rights icon. Marshall, a Maryland native and the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, served on the high court from 1967 to 1991.

Marshall died in 1993 at age 84.

As a civil rights attorney and justice, Marshall ensured that “the door of justice can and must be open to all,” Barbera told the Senate committee. “He and all that he accomplished did bend the arc of history toward justice.”

Peters and Watson are also chief sponsors of the Marshall Law Library legislation, Senate Bill 594 and House Bill 1330.


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