Bills in An­napo­lis seek pub­lic scru­tiny of judges

Leg­is­la­tors call for more over­sight, in­clud­ing nam­ing judges in court records

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Doug Dono­van

Who judges the judges in Mary­land? Gov. Larry Ho­gan and many state law­mak­ers think state judges don’t face enough scru­tiny. So they have pro­posed leg­is­la­tion to pro­vide more over­sight — by al­low­ing cam­eras in court­rooms, track­ing judges’ sen­tenc­ing of vi­o­lent crim­i­nals and in­clud­ing the names of judges in on­line pub­lic court records.

The courts “shouldn’t be a mys­te­ri­ous process,” said Steven Platt, a re­tired judge who oc­ca­sion­ally pre­sides over cases and who led a failed ef­fort 20 years ago to es­tab­lish a per­for­mance re­view sys­tem for judges. “I don’t think be­cause you be­come a judge you should be im­mune from crit­i­cism.”

The state’s judges serve among the long­est terms in the na­tion — 15 years for elected Cir­cuit Court ju­rists, a decade for those ap­pointed to the Dis­trict Court. Un­like 17 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia, Mary­land has no pub­lic sys­tem to eval­u­ate the per­for­mances of judges with a pro­gram that le­gal ex­perts say is es­sen­tial to main­tain­ing pub­lic trust, in­form­ing vot­ers and help­ing judges im­prove.

And un­like sur­round­ing states, Mary­land does not pub­lish judges’ names in on­line court records that pro­vide de­tailed iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion for ev­ery­one else: plain­tiffs, de­fen­dants, their at­tor­neys and po­lice of­fi­cers.

Most states — in­clud­ing Vir­ginia, Delaware and Penn­syl­va­nia — list judges’ names, said Bill Raferty, an an­a­lyst for the Na­tional Cen­ter for State Courts. “There is

al­ways a name at­tached to the judge.”

In­stead, Mary­land iden­ti­fies each judge in on­line records with unique nu­meric codes. The Mary­land Ju­di­ciary re­fuses to re­lease to the pub­lic a list of the judges’ names that cor­re­spond with those codes.

“Any unique iden­ti­fier as­signed to an in­di­vid­ual judge is con­sid­ered an ad­min­is­tra­tive record … and is non-dis­clos­able,” the Ad­min­is­tra­tive Of­fice of the Courts wrote to The Bal­ti­more Sun in re­sponse to a Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act re­quest. “There­fore, your re­quest is de­nied.”

The Abell Foun­da­tion in Bal­ti­more re­ceived the same answer when it sought the codes for Bal­ti­more Dis­trict Court judges. It re­sponded by fil­ing a law­suit to ob­tain the in­for­ma­tion. The case is still pend­ing in Bal­ti­more Cir­cuit Court.

“When jus­tice is hid­den, jus­tice is di­min­ished,” said Daniel Hatcher, a Uni­ver­sity of Bal­ti­more pro­fes­sor work­ing with stu­dent at­tor­ney Sum­bul Alam to rep­re­sent the foun­da­tion. “It’s con­cern­ing that the courts are ac­tively try­ing to hide ju­di­cial iden­ti­ties.”

The foun­da­tion was re­search­ing court records to de­ter­mine which judges may not be com­ply­ing with new rules re­lated to cash bail and other pos­si­ble trends, said Abell vice pres­i­dent Sh­eryl Goldstein.

Con­sid­er­ing that in some cases Cir­cuit Court judges’ names are in­cluded in on­line records, Goldstein said she was sur­prised to learn there would be a prob­lem ob­tain­ing iden­ti­ties for Dis­trict Court judges.

“It’s hard to make a pol­icy ar­gu­ment that oth­ers shouldn’t be iden­ti­fied,” she said.

Na­dine Maeser, a spokes­woman for the Ad­min­is­tra­tive Of­fice of The Courts, said the ex­ist­ing on­line sys­tem gets in­for­ma­tion from 25 dif­fer­ent data sources. She said “in­con­sis­ten­cies” in those sources are why some Cir­cuit Court judges are some­times iden­ti­fied. A new elec­tronic sys­tem be­ing launched across the state will im­prove what is dis­closed, in­clud­ing judges’ names, she said.

Del. Robin Gram­mer Jr., a Bal­ti­more County Repub­li­can, has in­tro­duced a bill supported by sev­eral Democrats that would re­quire judges’ names to be in­cluded in all on­line records.

“There’s a gi­ant mis­un­der­stand­ing about what hap­pens in the court sys­tem,” Gram­mer said. “We­owe the pub­lic a fun­da­men­tal state­ment of facts. And who was the judge who presided over a case is one of those facts.”

Dur­ing a hear­ing in An­napo­lis about Gram­mer’s bill, sev­eral of his col­leagues said they wor­ried that ex­pos­ing the judges’ iden­ti­ties could jeop­ar­dize their in­de­pen­dence and their phys­i­cal safety.

Del. De­bra Davis, a Charles County Demo­crat, said she has seen a “chill­ing ef­fect” on judges’ in­de­pen­dence when a “fear of pub­lic opin­ion” drives them away from mak­ing a “de­ci­sion based on the facts in front of them.”

Ri­cardo Flores, govern­ment re­la­tions di­rec­tor for the state Of­fice of the Pub­lic De­fender, said the sys­tem of ap­peals and other le­gal steps pro­vide enough ac­count­abil­ity for judges. Al­low­ing people who are not in­volved in cases to ob­tain data on judges’ de­ci­sions would open them to “sec­ond-guess­ing,” he said.

Pub­lic pres­sure could lead to an “ero­sion in the qual­ity of their de­ci­sion-mak­ing,” Flores said.

Platt ques­tioned the va­lid­ity of such ar­gu­ments.

“Part of your job as a judge is to re­sist that pub­lic pres­sure,” Platt said. “That’s why they get longer terms than most” pub­lic of­fi­cials.

Del. David Moon, a Mont­gomery County Demo­crat who co-spon­sored Gram­mer’s bill, said the Gen­eral As­sem­bly didn’t use to pub­lish how law­mak­ers voted in com­mit­tees.

“What’s go­ing on here with the court records is very anal­o­gous to that,” Moon said.

“And many of the same ar­gu­ments were used about why we should hide from pub­lic view how we voted in com­mit­tee,” Moon said. Some said “it would politi­cize our dis­cus­sions.”

Gram­mer’s bill comes at a time when other Repub­li­can law­mak­ers are seek­ing to al­low me­dia to bring cam­eras into court­rooms dur­ing sen­tenc­ing hear­ings and as Ho­gan calls for more vis­i­bil­ity of judges’ sen­tenc­ing de­ci­sions in vi­o­lent crime cases.

The Repub­li­can gover­nor’s “Ju­di­cial Trans­parency Act” calls for track­ing and pub­lish­ing judges’ sen­tenc­ing de­ci­sions for people con­victed of vi­o­lent crimes.

“This will en­sure that the pub­lic has vis­i­bil­ity into how the courts are deal­ing with vi­o­lent crim­i­nals and bring the same stan­dards of fair­ness and open­ness that ap­ply to the ex­ec­u­tive and leg­isla­tive branches to the ju­di­ciary,” ac­cord­ing to the gover­nor’s state­ment on the bill.

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