As Maryland takes steps toward full implementation of its new case management system, some state legislators plan to support or pursue future legislation to make judicial information more transparent.
In this year’s General Assembly session, Del. Robin Grammer Jr. introduced a bill that would have required the name of the person overseeing some form of judicial action or hearing — judges or magistrates — to appear in Maryland Judiciary Case Search results. It didn’t pass — but it could make a comeback.
Judges aren’t always named in online court records in Maryland. But most states do have judges’ names listed in an electronic, searchable system, according to Bill Raftery, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts.
“So, if I pull up John Doe’s speeding ticket case in Fairfax County, Virginia, I’m going to see [the] judge assigned is Judge Jane Warner, whatever it happens to be," Raftery said.
It’s an issue Grammer, a Baltimore County Republican, is “definitely looking” to raise again.
While it’s possible to encounter judges’ names in Maryland’s Case Search — if they’re associated with an order they sign, for instance, or if their names become affiliated with specific hearings or trials — their naming isn’t consistent. And if they were, that would open the door to lawmakers, news media and the public in general to track judicial patterns, according to Grammer.
While people may allege to see racism in the courts, or think they see a trend of judges releasing repeat offenders, they can’t officially determine that without additional information, he said.
“But if you don’t actually know who the judge is on any specific case, how can a lawmaker, or any member of the public, actually make an educated statement about that? And that’s really the purpose of the bill,” Grammer said.
Someone could go to court to view a paper file, where judges’ signatures are traditionally found. But Grammer said he and his colleagues discussed how forcing someone to go to court can be “oppressive," giving an example of a person who has to take a day off work, without reimbursement, to head to the courthouse for a speeding ticket.
“Having to go to the court — it’s a giant pain, you know, we live in 2019,” he said. “And in 2019, if you are blocking this simple information from the public, what you’re doing is you’re just creating a closed system.”
There could be more consistency in the future, though, regardless of potential future legislation.
Case Search receives information from 25 different applications, and when Maryland Electronic Courts or MDEC, an integrated case management system, is fully implemented, that’ll come through “one unified system,” Malarie Dauginikas, a public affairs supervisor for the Administrative Office of the Courts, wrote in an email.
“Our current Legacy systems feed Case Search, which is a large contributor to the inconsistencies in the display, along with variations in clerical data entry points,” the statement said. “The Judiciary anticipates greater consistency as we approach the statewide implementation of MDEC.”
The implementation of MDEC, a planned five-year project, began in 2014, according to an FAQ page on the courts’ website.
Dauginikas sent a link to https://mdcourts.gov/mdec/about in response to questioning about whether that greater consistency would specifically apply to naming judges in online records.
But Grammer thought the MDEC system implementation “ultimately is irrelevant” to the issue.
“They could do it right now,” he said. “Even if we moved to the new system, I’m not sure the judiciary would include the information at that point.”
This past session Del. Dan Cox, a Republican representing Carroll and Frederick counties, was one of the sponsors of the bill, which saw bipartisan support. He hasn’t made a decision as to whether he’d back a bill to name judges on Case Search again.
“The focus was a bipartisan attempt to try to bring some transparency and help to the fact that the family law system is struggling,” he said. “The issue is funding and making sure that the technology goes through the steps.”
The identification issue continues to have interest outside of the legislature. The Abell Foundation, based in Baltimore, sought identifying codes for judges — what Maryland uses to identify them in online records, but which aren’t publicly available — and was denied.
In October, the foundation filed a civil lawsuit to get them. That suit is still ongoing.
“Not permitting the public to determine the name of a judge in a particular case, without going through almost impossible obstacles, is terrible public policy,” said Benjamin Rosenberg, the foundation’s counsel on the case. “It’s absurd.”
Grammer’s bill wasn’t the only attempt in the General Assembly to shed more light on the judicial system. In addition to a bill that would permit cameras in court during sentencing, there was also a piece of legislation designed to have the State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy report information about judges’ sentencing decisions for violent crimes.
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Neither bill made it to the governor’s desk last session.
One of its sponsors, Republican Sen. Justin Ready of Carroll County, said he understood the hesitancy on the bill because every murder, assault or other violent crime would require weighing different circumstances. But he would’ve liked “to see us find a way to have more accountability and transparency.”
Ready said he thought a similar bill or another measure with elements of the original could be introduced during the 2020 session. Ready said he “would like to see us take a step forward in this area.”
Another sponsor, Sen. Michael Hough, emphasized that judicial accountability is an ongoing need, and he’d be supportive of legislation like Grammer’s bill in future.
Hough, a Republican who represents Carroll and Frederick counties, pointed to the fact that, as a senator, the public can easily figure out how he voted on an item — and for judges, some of whom are elected officials, people also have a right to know about their rulings.
“[The judicial branch is] held to a different standard than we hold the legislative branch,” he said. “And you can’t hold people accountable if you have no idea what they’re doing.”