Howard County's Circuit Court, which is second slowest in the state in disposing of civil cases, may have to wait another year to get a much-needed fifth judge.
A proposal to add another judge was dealt a setback last week when a House of Delegates subcommittee took Howard off the list of counties scheduled to receive new judges.
A similar plan is still alive in the state Senate, which is expected to consider it when work on the budget begins later this month, officials said.
Howard's Circuit Court caseload has more than doubled in the past decade, with the four judges last year facing 7,695 new cases.
The way Howard Circuit Judge Raymond Kane Jr. sees it, the court can manage for another year, but the work would go much more smoothly with a fifth judge.
"We'll get by," said Judge Kane, the court's administrative judge. "But to deliver the service we need to deliver, we'll need to get a fifth judge."
With more and more cases, plaintiffs and defendants must wait longer to go to trial, particularly in civil matters, Judge Kane said.
He noted that the court gives priority to criminal cases because state law requires defendants to receive a trial within six months of their initial court appearance, unless they waive that right.
Howard's judges on average take 268 days to dispose of a civil case -- ranking slowest in the state after Allegany County, with 298 days, according to a report by state Court of Appeals Judge Robert Murphy, who oversees Maryland's circuit courts.
Howard ranks ninth in its speed at handling criminal cases, averaging 127 days per case, the report says.
The county courthouse has a courtroom and offices available for a fifth judge, Judge Kane said. And the county has agreed to hire the necessary staff for an extra judge.
Now, all the county needs is for the state legislature to fund the new position.
However, the House Subcommittee on Education and Transportation, which addresses court issues, voted last Friday to remove the additional judgeships for Howard and Harford counties from a proposed bill.
The bill would have provided Howard with an extra $89,000 for the new judge, said James Roland, a spokesman for Governor William Donald Schaefer.
Howard Delegate Robert Flanagan, a member of the subcommittee, said the nine-member board voted 7-2 to scratch the additional judgeships for the two counties.
Mr. Flanagan said he and a Harford delegate voted against the measure.
zTC "That money has been taken out of the budget," said Mr. Flanagan, a Republican from District 14B. "It's very disappointing."
Even though the subcommittee deleted the fast-growing counties from its list, it kept Baltimore City and Calvert, Charles, Cecil, Frederick, Montgomery, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties on line for more judges.
Mr. Flanagan said there is a chance that the state Senate will restore funding for the Howard and Harford judgeships when it begins work on the new budget later this month.
He said the Senate could go either way. "I wouldn't hazard a guess as to the probability," he said. If the judgeships are not funded this year, the counties would have a good chance of getting the new judges next session, Mr. Flanagan said.