Maryland's new court focusing on complex business and technology cases is coming under sharp scrutiny from the legal community.
Under the court program, launched in January, specially trained judges are enlisted to bring expertise to cases involving arcane issues. Their qualifications help expedite decisions because time isn't lost over sorting out the subtleties of, say, an IPO.
But lawyers in Montgomery County are debating the merits of the Business and Technology Case Management Program.
"This looks like a fad," said Dale A. Cooter, a lawyer who unsuccessfully tried to keep a breach-of-contract case -- one involving an initial public offering -- out of the new specialty court. "And like disco, some fads don't last."
Cooter said the program seems to favor large companies over "the little guys with less resources" such as his client, software developer Scott Nickel.
It also operates on the premise, he said, that the average Circuit Court judge isn't capable of hearing complex business technology cases. "That notion is wrongheaded," Cooter said.
But others involved in the Maryland court system say the tech court will benefit individuals and corporations alike.
"If you had an IPO disagreement, you certainly would want a judge who knows, you know, IPO stuff," said Pamela Quirk Harris, Montgomery Circuit Court administrator. "Or if it's a huge Microsoft case [that examines] what one software does compared to another, you would want a judge who has a pretty good knowledge of computer applications."
Cooter points to a report commissioned by the Maryland General Assembly in 2000 as evidence the program was designed to favor big business. The report was produced by a task force of judges, lawyers, educators, legislators and business people.
The task force concluded that, although the state has attracted many bioscience, aerospace and information technology firms in recent years, "Maryland is still generally perceived by the business community as anti-business."
To fix that perception, the task force urged the state to establish a specialized court track to hear complex business and technology cases. The system would produce "more timely, rational, legally correct and . . . predictable rulings" from judges who have received special training, the report said.
The program also would give Maryland "a unique opportunity to substantially improve its perception among the business and technology communities as a preferred place to do business."
Ten other states already had business courts or tracks, the report said. But none had a program that focused on both business and technology.
Across Maryland, judges have been assigned to the program in each of the state's eight judicial circuits. In the sixth circuit, which covers Montgomery and Frederick counties, cases will be heard by judges Durke G. Thompson, John H. Tisdale and Michael D. Mason.
"Is this a good idea? It depends on whom you talk to," said Mason, a Montgomery Circuit Court judge since 1994. "The business bar thinks it's a great idea. The personal injury, litigation lawyers think: Why do you need this? If you have a business court, why don't you have a personal injury court?"
The answer, he said, is that many Circuit Court judges have plenty of experience hearing personal injury cases.
"But in these biotechnical fields, and technical fields in general," Mason said, "the issues coming along are just so esoteric that they really do require more education than the standard, run-of-the-mill personal injury case. . . . When you're talking about biogenetic firms, you get into all sorts of technical issues that nobody really understands."
So far, Mason said, the only special training has been a continuing legal education course about business relationships. But lawyers who know Mason say he has had ample experience hearing weighty business cases as a Circuit Court judge.
Mason said it's news to him that Maryland has an anti-business reputation, as the task force suggested.
"You know, I can't say it's not true," he said. "But it's not something I ever heard expressed. The reasons behind the court really aren't to appease the business community. They are instead to try and educate a number of judges . . . to better ensure that fair and intelligent decisions are being made."
One of Mason's first cases involves Nickel, who last summer sued his former employer, OTG Software Inc., and its former chairman, Richard A. Kay. Rockville-based OTG (now part of Legato Systems Inc. of California) has denied the allegations and filed a counterclaim.
In February, Kay's attorney, Roger W. Titus, argued in a letter to the court's administrative judge that the case should be moved to the business technology track.
Titus wrote that the case involves "lock-up agreements, over-allotment agreements in connection with public securities offerings and stock exchanges pursuant to a merger transaction," among other "complex securities matters."
Cooter countered that the case really is about "plain vanilla concepts of fiduciary duty and breach of contract, albeit in connection with the sale of public securities."
The trial, scheduled for Nov. 8, could be an early test of the new program.
"I'm afraid that in a lot of these cases you're going to find a disproportionate number of Davids matched up against some corporate Goliaths," Cooter said.
Titus seems cautiously optimistic. "It's way too early to tell whether this is a fantastic program," he said. "We need to see how it works."