Legislation allowing a sixth judge to be named to the Harford County Circuit Court was approved during the 2016 Maryland General Assembly session, but it remains to be seen when that judge would be seated on the bench, as a state nominating commission must select an applicant and forward his or her name for the governor's approval.
"That really starts a process of applications and recommendations from the [Trial Courts] Judicial Nominating Commission, which then goes to the governor for appointment," Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for the Harford County government, said of the passage of Senate Bill 117 and its companion legislation, House Bill 74.
Gov. Larry Hogan signed the House version, which is statewide legislation regarding naming judges to local Circuit and District Courts, April 12.
The House bill includes a provision to increase the number of Harford County Circuit Court judges from five to six.
"We're excited and anticipate getting that sixth position filled," Judge Angela M. Eaves, chief administrative judge for the Circuit Court, said Monday.
The bill is set to take effect July 1, according to a copy of the legislation posted online. Mumby said the nominating commission could forward a name to the governor, and he might "not act on it immediately."
The estimated time frame for getting a sixth judge seated ranges from three months to five months to one year, based on interviews with different people involved in the matter.
The judge, who has an annual salary of $154,433 in the current fiscal year, would be paid by the state, and the county must put up $250,000 toward paying up to three support staffers, including a secretary, an administrative assistant, who would prepare court files and the judge's docket, and a court reporter.
Eaves said a law clerk for the judge would be paid by the state.
Mumby said the money for the support staff is not in the proposed fiscal 2017 budget, but County Executive Barry Glassman would send a budget amendment for County Council approval once a judge has been appointed.
"It would be difficult for us to put a number on that time frame," Mumby said. "We would move forward when an individual is selected and the required support staff is needed."
Eaves said about five months elapsed between when long-serving Judge Stephen Waldron retired July 1, 2015 and Hogan named Judge Kevin Mahoney as his successor in December 2015.
"That strictly is up to the trial nominating commission from Harford County, as well as the governor's office," Eaves said of the time frame.
Applicants must go through a series of interviews with the members of the nominating commission, as well as local and state legal organizations, such as the Maryland State Bar Association, and the schedules of everyone involved must be arranged, according to Eaves.
State Sen. Wayne Norman, a Harford County Republican, supported the Senate legislation to get a sixth judge. He said last Friday he tried to get legislation approved during the 2015 legislative session, but it did not have any support at the time.
"According to the state's own figures, we're entitled to 2.9 [additional] judges," he said. "We only got one, but we have to start somewhere."
The five sitting Circuit Court judges have supported hiring a sixth judge to help ease their workload. Norman, a lawyer who applied for last year's judicial vacancy, said a sixth judge will also create a benefit for people seeking legal redress.
He said he has clients who have been "very upset" that they cannot get court dates scheduled, or hearings scheduled for matters such as child support or workman's compensation claims.
"This will be a tremendous relief for the litigants," Norman said.
As court loads have increased, both the Harford Circuit and District courts have relied on retired judges, both from the local bench and elsewhere in the state, to hear and decide cases.
Eaves and her staff are working with Glassman and his staff to find space for a sixth judge's chambers and officers for his or her support staff, the judge said.
The county owns the Harford County Courthouse in downtown Bel Air. Eaves said only five of the seven courtrooms have been built to accommodate a jury, and one of those five is used for juvenile court proceedings.
Eaves said it is not a simple matter of moving the juvenile magistrate to another courtroom and putting the sixth judge in there, even though juries do not hear juvenile cases. She said facilities for the juvenile court's ancillary needs, such as waiting areas for children and holding areas for juveniles who have been detained on a legal matter, are close to the courtroom.
Eaves said she and her colleagues are "definitely going to take that sixth judge," regardless of whether space is available right away.
"We'll figure out a way to make it work," she said.
Eaves provided the same information Monday afternoon during a hearing before the Harford County Council on the county judiciary's proposed $3.06 million budget for fiscal 2017.
"Getting a new judge will help tremendously," she said.
She said spending to support the sixth judge, however, is "a matter for somewhere later on down the road and not for this particular hearing for this budget cycle."
Councilman James McMahan expressed his support for the court system, saying the work courts do "in any county falls well beneath the radar of many citizens."
"In many cases your job is a thankless one, but one we certainly cannot do without," he told Eaves.
Once the position is set up and the process of picking the new judge begins, Harford County's Judicial Nominating Commission will put out a call for applications. The panel must send a minimum of three nominations to the governor, who is bound by executive order to either select one from the group request that the commission reconsider and send other names, readvertising for applicants, if necessary.
This particular selection process will come within two years of the commission submitting its nominations for the Mahoney judgeship. As a result, three other finalists remain as so-called pool candidates, automatically eligible for consideration by the governor through Oct. 16, 2017, unless they withdraw: Harford District Judge David Earl Carey, Harford Deputy State's Attorney Diane Adkins Tobin and Martin Eugene Wolf.
The nominating commission can submit as many names to the governor as it wishes, provided there are at least three.