Maryland's highest ranking judge told the General Assembly today that much of the delay in handling cases in state courts results from deficiencies in the law, and warned that the judicial system's problems cannot be solved "as long as political interests, rather than the public interest," dominate the legislature.
Robert Murphy, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, also cautioned legislators against rushing headlong into the major changes that have been proposed in the Assembly this year in the state's judicial system. Later, he suggested some major changes of his own.
The occasion of Murphy's remarks was this annual State of the Judiciary message to a joint session of the Assembly. Begun in 1975, the message affords the chief judge of the Court of Appeals an opportunity to describe for the legislature current and anticipated problems in the judicial system.
Murphy began his address gingerly, noting, as he began his criticism of several pending legislative proposals, that "I fully appreciate the fact that you need no advice from me in discharging your legislative responsibilites . . . "
When he ended 25 minutes later, the chief judge had given a sharp, if somewhat vague, criticism of the way the legislature approaches proposals relating to the court system and an endorsement of most of Gov. Marvin Mandel's judicial proposals for this year.
The highlights of Murphy's address came as he touched on inadequacies in the laws affecting the criminal system.
"The stark truth is that there are areas within the system, as it operates under existing laws, that are as easily manipulated by persons accused of crime as a gumball machine is by a master safecracker," he said.
The only example he gave was that of a convicted person's automatic right of appeal from a conviction in District Court, Maryland's lowest court level. "In these cases, an accused person is found guilty in the District Court, and enters an appeal. The guilty verdict is, in effect, expunged, and he is given a second full-blown trial . . "
Murphy recommended abolishing the "de novo" appeal, and substituting for it another kind of appeal whose granting is not automatic.
Later, Del. Steven V.Sklar, (D-Baltimore), vice chairman of a House of Delegates criminal law subcommittee, said Murphy's proposal probably would result in a far larger number of appeals than now are made.
Murphy criticized the legislature for reducing the number of prosecutors and public defenders in some subdivisions, failing to provide an adequate number of prison beds, prison guards, of probation officers, and using political considerations when voting on issues of importance to the court system.
"Those who break our criminal laws must come to expect swift arrest, prompt trial, and certain punishment," he said. "But that goal will never be attained as long as the criminal justice system is afforded a "no priority" status in the appropriation of public funds."
Asked after his speech what he meant about "political interests," Murphy replied. "At every General Assembly session, different legislators - it's no secret - have initiated legislation in legal areas that don't necessarily jibe with what I see as important . . . Sometimes bills are put in to simply placate a contributor or a constituent."
Murphy urged the legislature to go slowly on several proposals that face it this year to alter the legal system. One would consolidate all jurisdiction over family matters in a new Family Court. He said the idea "has much to commend it if, but only if the considerable resources necessary to operate it effectively are made available." He recommended waiting to evaluate the experience of a pilot project in Prince George's County.
Other proposals he urged caution on were those to switch juvenile cases from the Circuit Courts to the District Courts, and giving all minor traffic cases to an administrative agency rather than bringing them to court.
Murphy suggested abolishing juvenile masters, nonjurists who now handle many juvenile cases, in favor of more judges, and consolidating all the state's courts into one unified system, beginning with the six separate Supreme Benches of Baltimore.