Carroll legislators and business leaders received an inside look yesterday at courthouse operations, participating in a pilot program designed to let them better understand the problems and needs facing the state judiciary.
Robert M. Bell, Maryland's chief judge of the Court of Appeals, implemented the Judicial Ride-Along program several years ago to help delegates, especially freshmen lawmakers, because many did not have legal backgrounds, said Raymond E. Beck Sr., administrative judge for the Circuit Court of Carroll County.
"Only 17 percent of the state delegation are lawyers," Beck said. "That's a major change from 1973, when I was first elected to the legislature."
Fewer professionals can afford to give up 90 days to serve in the General Assembly session, Beck said.
The program was opened to business leaders this year as a pilot endeavor. Judging by events yesterday, spending a day in court was an eye-opening experience for many.
David S. Bollinger, of Barnes-Bollinger Insurance Services Inc. in Westminster -- who will take over as president of the county Chamber of Commerce in January -- said he was impressed by how busy judges are.
Todd Herring, president of Taneytown Chamber of Commerce, said he got a glimpse of how the court is sometimes restricted.
Both thought opening the ride-along program to the business community was good for all concerned.
"We get to see things from the court's perspective and can be in position to review legislation and make recommendations," said Bollinger, alluding to the Chamber of Commerce board, which represents more than 700 members of small and large businesses.
Alice Denell of Union National Bank, who sits on the chamber board, said she found the court system fascinating.
"Everyone should have this opportunity, especially kids," Denell said. "They need to see that if they mess up, they could end up here [in juvenile court]. The system is in place to help them, and it's sad to see children who aren't taking advantage of that help."
During the morning, the ride-along contingent visited the courtroom of Judge Francis M. Arnold, witnessing several criminal cases, then moved to juvenile court with Peter M. Tabatsko, the county's juvenile master.
Juvenile proceedings are protected by confidentiality laws. The business leaders were struck by the ages of the youthful offenders and the seriousness of their offenses.
"Juvenile court was disturbing," said Rebecca Gootee, first vice president of South Carroll Business Association and chairwoman of a chamber committee.
She was alluding to a decision Tabatsko made, allowing an offender to remain at home rather than sending the offender to a juvenile facility.
During a noon luncheon, Gootee and other participants questioned Tabatsko about that decision and received deeper insight into how difficult decisions can be for a juvenile master.
Tabatsko has served as the county's juvenile master for nearly 11 years. He said he will begin in January to hold night court once a month, hoping to give parents of offenders a better opportunity to become involved in their children's rehabilitation.
After lunch, the group also visited District Court for a taste of civil litigation and completed the ride-along with a tour of the Carroll County Detention Center in Westminster.