Another ruling that raised eyebrows was an October decision that removed a legal requirement that ground-rent holders, who own the land under thousands of homes in the state, register or face losing ownership of the leases. Lawmakers responded with legislation, signed into law last week, that prohibits lease holders from collecting payments until they register.

In October, the court struck down a 1994 law that capped damages in lead-poisoning lawsuits and protected law-abiding landlords of older homes. Many feared that the ruling would put responsible landlords at risk of huge liability judgments. The General Assembly failed to come up with an acceptable compromise, however, and wound up passing a bill that created a study group to examine the issue.

"I think that the court had been very consistent in a number of rulings over the years, but when you look at [some] of the rulings they've made in the last couple of years, they just seem to be curious," Simmons said. There's "a great deal of concern about the center of the court. … Does it really have an intellectual center or is it prone to kind of lurch?"

In her statement, judiciary spokeswoman Angelita Plemmer said the judges are just doing their jobs, and no more.

"Judges are vested with the responsibility of reaching difficult decisions in matters that are, by nature, adversarial and often controversial, and they must render fair and impartial decisions based on law," Plemmer said. "The court interprets current laws, the legislature alters the law where it sees fit."

One court decision the General Assembly grappled with this year was widely viewed as correct, if inconvenient, according to legislators.

The January decision that defendants deserve representation, including by public defenders, at initial bail hearings before a court commissioner caused a scramble among legislators, who largely believed that indigent defendants have a right to counsel but needed to figure out how best to make that possible. They quickly passed emergency bills changing the law to expressly state that representation is not required at commissioner hearings but is required at follow-up review hearings before a judge.

Smigiel said the quick fix will probably not stand up to scrutiny, however, if the courts are asked to decide whether the new law satisfies a constitutional right to representation at the various stages of the court process.

"We'll be back" dealing with it again, he said.

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the process is working as it should, and that she hasn't heard any murmurs about tension between the court and the General Assembly.

"I personally don't believe that that's the case," Dumais said, commending the court on its entire record. "It just sort of happens that there were more [questioned decisions] this year than others."

It's largely a matter of perception, she said, echoing Simmons' interpretation.

"It's a careful balance," Simmons said. "The legislature does the legislating and the courts do the interpreting, and in my opinion, both institutions should act with restraint."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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