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Barbera Aims For Timely Administration Of Justice

The Daily Record

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- Mary Ellen Barbera spent many of her first 100 days as Maryland's top jurist visiting the state's circuit and district courts, a half-finished trek that she said has revealed to her many aging courthouses that are too small for their workloads or not designed to handle 21st century technology.

Barbera, who became chief judge of the Court of Appeals July 6, cited outdated courthouses as a major obstacle to the judiciary's "overarching mission, the fair administration of justice."

Barbera did not provide a list of courthouses to make her point, finding that two would suffice.

"The Baltimore city circuit courthouses," she said Oct. 15. "I don't have to say more."

Barbera's comments came as the judiciary -- with a current annual budget of $468.2 million -- is preparing its funding request for next fiscal year, which it will present to the General Assembly this winter. The numbers are still being crunched, but it will include a capital budget request for courthouse improvements, she said.

"We look to our partners in government," Barbera added, referring to the legislature and executive branch. "It is our responsibility (in the judiciary) to make the case."

Overseeing the judiciary's budget is just one of the many duties Barbera assumed after Gov. Martin O'Malley elevated her to chief judge in July. She succeeded Robert M. Bell, who reached the state constitution's mandatory retirement age of 70 on July 6.

Barbera, 62, also inherited a high court that, on many occasions, had not rendered decisions until years after hearing the appeals.

While the Maryland Constitution calls for a 90-day turnaround, the court's records show the average stood at "5.4 months" in 1996, when Bell became chief judge. The average fluctuated during his tenure and reached a high of 243 days in fiscal 2011, when The Daily Record began publishing the averages.

The average fell to 183 days the following year. It dropped to 158 days -- or about 5.4 months -- for fiscal 2013, which ended June 30. Since June 30, however, the court has issued opinions in several cases it heard three or more years ago, including four by Bell.

Critics of such long-stalled decisions have noted that the Court of Appeals, unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, does not include on its decisions the date the appeal was argued and have speculated that the reason is embarrassment for the time span.

Barbera acknowledged that criticism Oct. 15, saying that the argument date will appear on the high court's coming decisions.

"There's no reason why we shouldn't do that and we will do it," Barbera said.

Barbera's plan to include the argument dates followed her announcement last month that the Court of Appeals will follow another Supreme Court practice and issue its decisions in the same term in which the cases are argued, which for the Court of Appeals is no later than the succeeding Aug. 31.

"I have no doubt we will be successful," Barbera said.

Attorney Irwin R. Kramer, an outspoken critic of the court's past delays in issuing decisions, called Barbera's public pledge "a long time coming."

"Chief Judge Barbera recognized the problem and that it didn't reflect well on the court," said Kramer, of Kramer & Connolly in Reisterstown.

"It's very reassuring to the litigants to know that there will be a date certain by which their fate will be determined," he added. "That truly is an important step forward."

The chief judge, in a nod to the job's time-consuming administrative responsibilities, has placed a help-wanted ad on the Maryland Judiciary's website for a chief of staff. The successful candidate will help Barbera manage her out-of-court duties and let her focus on her primary job of deciding cases and presiding over the high court, she said.

A chief of staff can "make sure that nothing escapes my attention," Barbera added. "I want to be sure I can be the most effective chief judge possible."

The chief of staff, according to the ad, must be a Maryland lawyer in good standing and have six years' experience in a judicial or legal environment, including three years as a supervisor. The person's salary will be between $94,871 and $146,415, the ad states.

During her first months as chief judge, Barbera has shown herself to be a stickler for the time limits imposed on attorneys arguing before the high court. She told one attorney, who wanted to say just one more sentence after his time had expired, to keep it brief, without any subordinate clauses.

"I do have the attorneys mind the lights," Barbera said, referring to the white and red lights on the attorneys' podium.

The white light signifies the attorney has five more minutes and the red light means one more minute. Time is up when both lights are illuminated.

Barbera also said lawyers should "know your case thoroughly" and "don't be afraid of the questions" from the bench.

"It's your opportunity to resolve the court's concerns," she said.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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