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Court of Appeals extends deadline for state to provide lawyers at hearings

The Court of Appeals has extended the deadline by which the state must make sure criminal defendants have lawyers by their side during bail hearings before District Court commissioners.

Currently, the state provides attorneys only at hearings before judges. But the Court of Appeals ruled in September that they must be provided earlier in the process, at the initial hearings before the commissioners.

State officials say that would cost $30 million a year — money they say they don't have. The District Court was initially required to comply with the ruling by last Friday, but won an extension until Tuesday. On Tuesday the court extended the deadline to June.

The General Assembly is considering ways around the court ruling, including eliminating the hearings before bail commissioners, or allowing jail officials to set bail — a technicality that might allow the state to skirt constitutional requirements for counsel.

But the office of the attorney general says those solutions could take more than a year to implement.

Aides to Gov. Martin O'Malley say he wants the legislature to find a long-term solution, which could include overhauling the pretrial system.

The District Court is being sued by plaintiffs, including Quinton Richmond, a Baltimore man who demanded a lawyer at a bail hearing in 2006 but was denied one.

The Court of Appeals ordered oral arguments for May on how the state can implement the order, and whether it should be revised to help the state comply.

One thing that won't be discussed, the court said, was the ruling itself.

District Court administrators, and O'Malley and Senate leaders, had hoped the court would reconsider its decision.

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