The cheaper and less time-consuming process whereby persons in some Maryland counties - including Prince George's and Charles - could appeal their criminal and civil convictions without using a lawyer has been outlawed by state judges.
Under an 1867 Maryland constitutional provision, convicted criminal defendants and losers in civil cases in the Circuit Courts of Prince George's, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties have been able to bypass the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and file an appeal heard by a panel fo circuit court judges.
Such appeallants must only submit a memorandum to a circuit judge - as opposed to a costly, printed brief for the Maryland Court of Appeals - and are not required to pay for transcripts of their cases or official excerpts from the court records, as in other appeals.
There is no requirement that the appellants be represented by lawyers, and such an appeal - called "en banc" - usually takes only one or two months to complete, while those going to the Special Appeals Court normally wait six months for a hearing.
Last July, however, all 15 judges of the Seventh Circuit assembled in an Upper Marlboro courtroom to hear arguments that the en banc was unconstitutional, and yesterday, meeting in judicial conference, the judges settled on a 8-to-7 decision outlawing the appeals' process.
Judge Howard S. Chasanow has written the majority opinion, to be published soon. Judge Vincent J. Femia will publish a second opinion that argues for keeping the en banc, which Femia calls "the poor man's appeal."
The judges voted yesterday to allow all en banc appeals already filed to be heard. But unless the decision is overturned on an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals - a challenge that Femia and Chasanow say is likely - the four or five litigants a month who have used it in 7th Judicial Circuit courts will be forced to use the more expensive appeals methods.
The Prince George's County State's Attorney's office, which cannot appeal criminal verdicts to the Court of Special Approvals, will lose one of its only constitutionally allowed appeals options. "We consider en banc to be our right under the constitution," said spokesman Ron Cooper yesterday, "and the judges' decision doesn't change our minds."
Melvin Hirshman, who argued for the en banc appeal in the July hearing, said that citizens will have to spend "at least several hundred dollars" more to file an appeal when the en banc option is canceled.
"A special appeals action costs at least $1,000 in attorney's fees and costs for brief," said George Meng, who argued against en banc. "If you do it en banc you can save time and spend only two or three hundred dollars."
"When appeals are made to be that expensive," Hirshman said, "I think you are taking away the citizens' rights."
The only reason en banc is not used more frequently, the attorneys said, is that many lawyers are not sure that such an appeals method exists.
The hearing on the en banc appeal was prompted by Chasanow, who had read an October 1977 decision by the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City that en banc did not exist for Baltimore City courts.
When Hirshman appealed an alimony settlement en banc, Chasanow asked Hirshman and Meng to aruge the constitutionality of the appeal as part of the case.
Meng responded by arguing that en banc appeals, which in the past have been heard by a panel of three judges, must be heard by all 15 circuit judges, under the vague wording of Maryland Constitution.
Ernest A. Loveless, the chief administrative judge for the 7th Circuit, accepted the argument, and so Meng and Hirshman found themselves arguing a $100-per-month alimony payment before 15 judges.
Meng argued that because citizens cannot appeal en banc in Baltimore courts, the appeal cannot be allowed in other Maryland circuits, under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Hirshman contented that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld separate court procedures in the same state in other cases and that "every citizens in the United States does not have to be treated exactly the same way."