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Legislators OK bills to rename Maryland’s 2 appeals courts; voters could decide question in 2022 referendum

Persistent public confusion over the name of Maryland’s highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals, is prompting lawmakers to pursue putting a constitutional amendment before voters that would rebrand the centuries-old institution as the Supreme Court of Maryland.

The ballot measure would also redub the arguably equally confusing Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which considers appeals from circuit courts around the state, as the Appellate Court of Maryland. And it would give members of the newly renamed state supreme court the title of justice, rather than judge.

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So far, lawmakers have overwhelmingly signed off on putting the name changes to Maryland voters in 2022, a legally required step since the names of both institutions are enshrined in the state’s constitution. The state Senate passed a bill 38-7 on Friday, while an identical measure sailed Monday through the House of Delegates on a 125-10 vote.

At least one of those bills still needs to pass the opposite chamber. The lopsided vote margins — and the fact that both versions are identical — make that all but certain.

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The leaders of both courts asked lawmakers to make the name changes, citing what they called persistent confusion among out-of-state attorneys and people outside the legal community about just what each court does. Maryland and New York are the only states that don’t call their top court a “supreme court.”

That distinction sometimes leaves folks scratching their heads while trying to do legal research and figure out whether opinions from the Court of Appeals or the Court of Special Appeals carry more weight, said Mary Ellen Barbera, the chief judge of the seven-member Maryland Court of Appeals.

In particular, that’s an issue for prisoners and other Marylanders without legal training who are trying to represent themselves in court or research cases and find the state’s unusual naming choices perplexing, Barbera told senators in February.

Barbera, as it happens, would not become Maryland’s first “chief justice,” even if the referendum is held and voters sign off on the changes. Barbera, 69, will hit the state’s mandatory retirement age of 70 before any referendum.

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For the record, it’s Barbera’s court that has the final say on matters of state law.

Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters, a Prince George’s County Democrat who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said the proposal sprang from discussions with Barbera about replacing the court’s deteriorating building in Annapolis and a since-approved effort to rename the Maryland State Law Library for the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall of Baltimore.

“They’re going to get a brand-new building, and they could get a brand-new name and that will be her legacy,” Peters said, referring to Barbera.

Del. Ron Watson, a fellow Prince George’s County Democrat, sponsored the House version of the bill.

Maryland Court of Special Appeals Chief Judge Matthew J. Fader — whose 15-judge court sits below Barbera’s — said plenty of people are thrown off by the “special” in his court’s name and mistakenly assume it’s the higher of the two.

Fader said his court’s name dates to its founding in 1966. The General Assembly at the time was worried about a ballooning workload at the Court of Appeals, which was then the state’s only appellate court and directly handled appeals from the circuit court level in nearly every kind of case.

Initially, Fader said, the Court of Special Appeals was created as a lower appellate court with limited — or “special” — jurisdiction over only criminal cases. Lawmakers soon expanded its authority to cover nearly every lower court in the state, rendering the “special” in its name an anachronism.

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