Bills in Annapolis seek public scrutiny of judges
Legislators call for more oversight, including naming judges in court records
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.