House Speaker John Hanson Briscoe said it was mere coincidence that he was not on the podium today when the House of Delegates passed a bill that would add a 13th judge to the state's Court of Special Appeals, a seat that some suggest is being prepared for Briscoe.
The measure was approved by a vote of 75 to 51.
"That bill's not for me," said Briscoe, who did not vote on the bill and allowed Speaker pro-tem Ann Hull (D-Prince George's) to preside during the lively, one-hour debate.
"It's an old rumor" that he is headed for a spot on one of the state's two highest courts, Briscoe said. "They also say President Carter's going to name me to the federal bench, or that I'm going to be a candidate for (Maryland) attorney general," the 42-year-old St. Mary County lawyer said.
There was no suggestion during the debate that the bill was intended to created a place for Briscoe, or any other political figure. The oppostition, led by Del. Steven V. Sklar (D-Baltimore), contended the legislature was being "hoodwinked" by the judiciary, which placed its highest priority on the bill.
Sklar acknowledged that the case load of the 12-member court has grown dramatically since it was created 10 years ago, but he said the state's second highest court is being overworked because the Court of Appeals, the seven-judge court that is the state's highest ranking, does too little.
What began as a court to which only criminal and juvenile cases could be appealed has become "a court of all appeals," Sklar said.
"The problem is that the Court of Appeals wants to be like the Supreme Court of the United States, picking and choosing what appeals to hear," Sklar said.
Del. Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery) who sponsored the bill, said the shift in work was the result of legislative mandate. Owens also challenged a chart prepared by Sklar that showed the average work load of a Court of Appeals judge in 1975 was 24.7 cases, compared to 115.3 for judges of the Court of Special Appeals. Owens noted that the Court of Appeals sits en banc (all together) while the Court of Special Appeals divides its work among three-judge panels.
Del. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore) chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which conducted a public hearing on the proposal, said Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy of the Court of Appeals testified that an additional judge for the second highest tribunal had "top priority." Cardin said the General Assembly should respect the wishes of the judiciary as an equal branch of state government.
Sklar's chart showed that in 1966, the last year in which the Court of Appeals was only appelate court in the state, its seven judges handled 714 cases, or 102 per judge. The next year, according to the chart, the new, then five-judge, Court of Special Appeals handled 382 cases, or 76.4 per judge, and the work load at the higher court dropped to 435 cases, or 62 per judge.
By 1970, when each court had seven judges, the Court of Appeals handled 489 cases, or 70 per judge, and the Court of Special Appeals was up to 729 cases, or 104 per judge, the chart showed. The second court added an eight judge in 1972, two more in 1973, and another two in 1974.
Del. Harol L. Bachman (D-Anne Aruendel), who said he was "not a lawyer, but only a tailor," said, "The people are sick and tired of the courts being treated like sacred cows," with judges being paid $43,000 a year for short work weeks and long vacations.
Despite the protests, the lawyer-laden House passed the bill and sent it to the Senate.
in other action, the Senate passed and sent to the House tonight a bill that would permit each of the state's 23 counties and Baltimore to determine for themselves the percentage by which the full value of a home would be reduced for purposese of calculating property taxes.
Currently, all home owners throughout Maryland pay property taxes on 50 per cent of the total value of their homese valued at $40,000 pays taxes calculated by multiplying $20,000 by the local tax rate. The bill would permit any county to raise - but not lower - the present 50 per cent inflation allowance.
The proposal is a certain feature of a tax relief program advocated by leaders of the Senate and the House.