The Maryland Senate today narrowly approved a measure that would prohibit persons found guilty of misdemeanors in the state's lowest courts from appealing those verdicts simply because they disagree with the outcome.
The belated change of mind by one Baltimore senator, who voted in favor of the bill, may have jeopardized the bill's passage, however. A second vote is scheduled for Thursday.
Authored by Sen. Melvin Steinberg (Dbaltimore County), the bill would ban the de novo appeal, the automatic appeal to the circuit court currently allowed persons convicted in district courts, but would continue to permit appeals of convictions if it is believed a technical error on a point of law was made by the presiding district court judge.
After a long and sometimes contentious debate, the Senate approved the bill by a vote of 24 to 19. Since a majority of the 47 state senators must approve a bill for it to pass the Senate, 24 votes is the smallest number a bill can receive and still be approved.
One of those who voted for the bill was Sen. Clarence W. Blunt (DBaltimore). Moments before the Senate adjourned, Blunt asked that he be allowed to reconsider his vote on Friday.
Later, Blount refused to say whether he will change his vote. "I just want a new vote," said Blount. "It's a very tricky bill.If you believe in upgrading the lower court, maybe it's a good bill, but this gives me more time."
In an address to the legislature several weeks ago, Judge Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the court of Appeals, strongly recommended that de novo appeals be eliminated, arguing they are demeaning to district court judges and a waste of time. Murphy said there were about 4,800 de novo appeals from the roughly 830,000 cases handled by district court judges last year.
The quality of district court judges and the sufficiency of the legal proceedings in the lower court are at the heart of the debate over automatic appeals.
District courts often have the appearance of dispensing "assemblyline" justice, with lines of indicted people filing past the judge's chair often without counsel, to briefly plead their cases and then listen to the judge pronounce their guilt or innocence.
District court judges are generally considered less higly qualified than their circuit court colleagues; it is considered a promotion for a judge to move from the district to the circuit levels.
There are several major procedural differences between district and circuit courts. In circuit courts, there usually are two ways of recording testimony in use at all times, to insure accuracy in case of a breakdown in one; there is only one recording device in district courts.
In addition, defense attorneys in district court cases do not enjoy the right to see all of the prosecution's evidence before a case begins as they do in circuit courts. That rule can be changed byMaryland's highest court, the Court of Appeals.
"I've practiced in district courts, and heard judges say, 'I don't care what the law says. You can appeal it to the circuit court," said Sen. Clarence Mitchell III, testifying against the bill.
"If we pass this law, many district court judges will continue to act as if there were appeals de novo . . . You're putting the cart before the horse in this bill. Let's first exact from district court judges the same standards we exact from circuit court judges."
Like Mitchell and Crawford, many of those who opposed the bill were senators who earn much of their income as defense attorneys. Their opposition was noted by Sen. John J. Bishop, Jr., (RBaltimore County).
"I cringe in district courts, too," said Bishop, himself an attorney, "not because (defendants) don't have lawyers, but because the lawyer knows" he need not prepare well for district court cases since he can automatically appeal an unfavorable decision to the circuit court.
"I suggest to you that you be very careful about some of the very specious arguments we've heard on this bill . . . The judges will be called to a greater accounting, and so will the lawyers."