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Legislator: There’s only one right choice for the next chief judge of Maryland’s highest court | COMMENTARY

The Maryland Court of Appeals ahead of the oral arguments in the Freddie Gray case. Judges Shirley M. Watts, Sally D. Adkins, Lynne A. Battaglia, Mary Ellen Barbera, Clayton Greene Jr., Robert N. McDonald, and Michele D. Hotten.
The Maryland Court of Appeals ahead of the oral arguments in the Freddie Gray case. Judges Shirley M. Watts, Sally D. Adkins, Lynne A. Battaglia, Mary Ellen Barbera, Clayton Greene Jr., Robert N. McDonald, and Michele D. Hotten.

Our seven-member Maryland Court of Appeals will change considerably from the court we have today because of mandatory retirements. Within the next year, three of our seven judges will turn 70 and be required to retire, including: Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera in September, Judge Robert McDonald in February and Judge Joseph Getty in April. These retirements are consequential because the Court of Appeals, as Maryland’s highest court, reviews trial court actions and decisions to determine whether a judge followed the law and legal precedent; adopts rules of judicial administration, practice, and procedure; and conducts disciplinary proceedings involving members of the bench and bar, among other duties.

Governor Hogan has appointed four of the court’s sitting judges, though one, Judge Getty, is set to soon retire. That means that by this time next year, Governor Hogan will have appointed six of the seven sitting judges. With Chief Judge Barbera’s retirement, the governor will designate one of the court’s current judges as its 25th chief judge, a decision that is his alone.

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The importance of the governor’s designation mustn’t be lost on us. The chief judge is the administrative head of the judiciary and has the power to designate one judge of the district court as chief judge of that court. Our most recent chiefs used their authority to explore very important policy areas within the court’s purview. Chief Judge Robert Bell undertook a comprehensive study of contributory negligence and comparative fault. Last year, Chief Judge Barbera formed the Committee on Equal Justice to make recommendations on strategies to dismantle discriminatory behaviors in all aspects of the judiciary’s functions, among other tasks, in the pursuit of equal justice for all.

Given the chief judge’s administrative and policy-setting powers, the governor must designate an experienced judge who has served in the Maryland judiciary for several years and brings to the position a certain gravitas, is respected and provides continuity over the long-term.

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Our most recent chiefs have had a minimum of five years of appellate experience prior to their designation as the court’s chief. They all served with a wealth of judicial experience and provided long-term stability to the judiciary. Chief Judge Barbera had 11 years of appellate court experience, including five years with the Court of Appeals, before being named chief in 2013. Chief Judge Bell had nine years trial court experience and 12 years of appellate experience, including five years with the Court of Appeals, before serving as its chief from 1996 to 2013. Chief Judge Robert Murphy had five years appellate experience as the Court of Special Appeals’ chief judge before serving as the chief judge of the Court of Appeals from 1972 to 1996.

While qualified, Judge McDonald has nine years and Judge Getty has five years of judicial experience, if appointed chief after Judge Barbera’s retirement this coming September, each judge would be required to retire within months of his appointment; they each have 70th birthdays coming up early next year. The average tenure of a chief judge is just over 10 years, so neither Judges McDonald nor Getty would have an opportunity, serving for about six and eight months, respectively, to provide stability for our courts.

The governor could also designate one of his more recent appointees: Judge Brynja McDivitt Booth or Judge Jonathan Biran. However, their judicial experience is limited to their brief tenure on the Court of Appeals.

With her experience, Judge Michele Hotten, is certainly qualified. She has served on the Circuit Court for 16 years, District Court for one year, the Court of Special Appeals for five years, and the Court of Appeals for six years. During her swearing-in, Governor Hogan recognized that she was one of a handful of jurists to serve at all four levels of Maryland’s judicial branch and was “impeccably prepared” to join the Court of Appeals. However, if appointed, she would be required to retire by April 20, 2024, so her time as Chief Judge would be limited.

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That leaves the governor one choice: the eminently qualified Judge Shirley Watts.

Prior to serving on the Court of Appeals, she served two years on the Court of Special Appeals and nine years on the Circuit Court. If appointed, she would not reach mandatory retirement age until March 2029, giving her enough time to provide long-term stability to the judiciary. Maryland would be well served with the experience and stability that a Chief Judge Watts would bring to the court. There is only one judge with time on their side, the service on this Court, and overall judicial experience, that judge is Judge Shirley Watts.

Charles E. Sydnor III (charles.sydnor@senate.state.md.us) represents Baltimore City and Baltimore County in the Maryland State Senate.

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