ANNAPOLIS, FEB. 10 -- Some of Maryland's top judges told the General Assembly today that they are swamped with cases around the state and need reinforcements on the bench.
Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that circuit courts in several jurisdictions are being inundated with asbestos-related cases and requests for jury trials in misdemeanor cases.
Murphy is asking the legislature to create five circuit court judgeships, one each in Prince George's, Charles, Wicomico, Baltimore County and the city of Baltimore. His department is also seeking two new district court judgeships, one each in Prince George's and Charles counties.
Murphy was joined by five administrative judges from courts around the state, who told the committee of rapidly growing case backlogs.
The chief judge told the panel that circuit courts are being clogged with jury trial requests from defendants in misdemeanor cases in lower level district courts. Many of those defendants seek jury trials because they know that the overloaded courts cannot accommodate them and prosecutors will offer them a plea bargain.
"It's a horrendous problem," Murphy said. There were 28,000 such requests in circuit courts around the state last year, but only 2 percent resulted in jury trials.
He and the other judges said the state faces a major problem in processing the thousands of asbestos claims that have been filed in recent years. Those cases, so far concentrated in the Baltimore area, stem from widespread asbestosis, a lung disease from which many steel mill and shipyard workers suffer.
"I'm not one to cry wolf," said Frank E. Cicone, chief judge of the Baltimore County Circuit Court. "I've always been reluctant to request additional judges," he said, "but we need help immediately."
Cicone said his court is receiving an average of 180 asbestos cases a month, and can handle only 10 to 15 in that time.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan told the committee that 2,300 asbestos cases are pending in his courthouse, and he expects that number to grow to 4,000 by the end of the year.
The city has agreed to provide a special master to hear asbestos cases, he said, but even so the court's civil division will be "virtually shut down" because four of the five civil judges will be devoting all their time to asbestos cases beginning this spring in order to relieve the backlog.
"We have to do it or we'll never break the back of the asbestos problem," Kaplan said.
Murphy also attributed the increase in court cases around the state to family disputes, including more divorces, foster placements and child-abuse cases. Last fiscal year, he said, circuit courts reported 194,000 case filings, an increase of 7,500 over the previous year.
The cost of hiring seven more judges and support staffs for each is slightly more than $1 million, Murphy said. He noted that he has not asked for a large number of new judgeships in recent years. He asked for only one last year, for example, and has received only eight new positions in the last four years.
Senate leaders predicted that the request for more judges will pass without much trouble, along with a proposal to raise judicial salaries. The Maryland Judicial Compensation Commission has recommended pay raises of 10 to 14 percent for state judges, for an average increase of $8,600. The state's circuit judges would be paid $82,200 a year if the raises are approved, and Murphy, the state's highest ranking judge, would receive $88,400 a year.