UPDATED September 2016 *Judge reversal list and raw data have been updated on this day, September 19, 2016. It reflects data for all of 2015, the unreported opinions for Jan-Aug 2016, and the reported opinion data for 2014. When attorneys say “whatever the judges WANT to have happen, is what WILL happen in Maryland”, you understand that the concepts of “justice”, “law” and “truth” aren’t factored into the equation. That’s unfortunate.
There is a lot of focus these days on law enforcement and the judicial system. Here in Maryland, the Freddie Gray trials have brought both systems onto the front page of newspapers and to the dinner table as a topic of conversation in many homes. The announcement that the judge’s decision compelling Officer William Porter to testify in the trials of the remaining officers has been put on hold by the Court of Special Appeals, offers a great opportunity to explain some things about the workings of the Maryland court system.
Chief Justice Mary Ellen Barbera, in her Feb 2015 state of the judiciary speech, said “Marylanders want and deserve a court system they can trust: one that treats them fairly and with respect in their dealings with the courts.” In further comment regarding “process”, Barbera went on to say that “..it is well understood, that people will accept judicial outcomes, even if adverse to their side of the case, if they believe they have been treated fairly and with respect.” She mentioned accountability, and talked about the mission implemented fifteen years ago to “..establish and implement standards by which to gauge performance and garner the public’s trust..”. The end of her sentence is “..that their cases will be decided timely.” And though timeliness is important for trust, transparency and accountability is more important. She mentioned “standards by which the entire court experience can be measured at every level of our courts..”, but true accountability relies upon disclosure.
There are other industries and sectors where this is already known and understood. The airline industry and the healthcare sector come to mind. There is little to no room for error in either, as error can lead to devastating consequences. Think the legal system doesn’t compare to being in a flying plane or on an operating room table? Ask anyone who has had more than a minor district court level brush with the Maryland courts how it affected them and their lives. Judges and attorneys may not choose to or wish to treat the things that happen in the judicial system as “personal”, but it’s only really NOT personal for them. Everything that happens (that “entire court experience” the chief judge mentioned) is personal for the parties. Deep down, everyone working at the judiciary knows this, even if they choose to try to forget. That is, until it’s a member of their family that gets affected. Simply put, when it affects YOU, you want someone to do their best and not rush. Rushing leads to mistakes in every industry and sector.
In the 1996 state of the judiciary speech, the chief judge reflected that “..circuit court judges are engaged in a tedious day-to-day struggle to keep abreast of ever-increasing, seemingly endless dockets of cases of great importance to the citizens of our State.” There are 8 judicial circuits in Maryland, and each Maryland county has its own circuit court. When a party isn’t happy with what happened in the circuit court, they can appeal the decision. That is what happened in the Baltimore City Circuit Court in the Porter case.
For the longest time, the next step in Maryland was the Court of Appeals. In 1966, the Court of Special Appeals was created by constitutional amendment “..to alleviate the heavy caseload then imposed upon the Court of Appeals in order to afford that Court time for more mature reflection in cases requiring the most careful and thorough research and study in molding and applying the applicable law.” The Court of Special Appeals is an intermediate appellate court. According to the FY2014 Annual Statistical Abstract, the Court of Appeals saw 999 filings. That number includes various sorts of cases such as attorney grievance matters, certiorari petitions (many which are denied), and appeals. The Court of Special Appeals saw 1873 filings in the same period. 153 appeals were disposed of in FY2014 by the Court of Appeals, and 2079 were disposed of by COSA. Both courts are charged with the task of reviewing the work done by the courts below them, if a party has the money and/or knowledge to do it. Frankly, many people don’t.
Though the Maryland judiciary provides statistical information (see report HERE) on the number of lower court decisions that each appellate court affirms (keeps the same), reverses (changes) and vacates (cancel or rescind), the Maryland consumer cannot easily see which person behind the black robe had their decision questioned. That’s important consumer information to have for those entering the legal system, and it’s important for voters who may be asked to choose to re-elect a circuit court judge whom they may not otherwise have ever encountered. Performance counts, and in the legal arena, it can make a significant difference in money owed, a right retained, and even freedom garnered.
In fiscal year 2014, the Court of Special Appeals dismissed 659 of the 2079 cases, leaving 1406 cases. 326 of them, or 23%, were reversed, vacated or sent back to the lower court for more work. Wow, seems like a high number. Not exactly a number that would get advertised anywhere, until now. Can you imagine a 23% error rate in healthcare or in aviation? Ask anyone in healthcare or aviation and they will assuredly say that such a high rate would never be tolerated. For purposes of transparency and public trust, more is going to be provided to the public via this site. Marylanders deserve it, and need it in order to make informed choices regarding their legal decisions and options. They need it for election time, and if they are to provide the solicited input desired (click HERE) by the Judicial Nominating Commission who is charged with the task of voting on the nominees to present to the Governor.
A list has been compiled of the unreported and reported opinions of both the Court of Appeals and the Court of Special Appeals. The unreported opinions account for about 90% of all the appeals cases, and can now be found online HERE. The reported opinions can be found HERE. People should look at them, since they provide a wealth of information about how the law is being interpreted here in Maryland. A request was made of the Maryland judiciary under the Public Information Act for information that would have detailed the lower court and judge whose decision was being questioned, but the request was denied by the judiciary. See letter below. It has been researched, compiled, and is being presented here on this website (see below), with updated info provided as it is received. The 2014 tabulation is in progress, but will take time, as will the completion of the earlier 2015 data. In addition, as new cases (2016) are resolved, they will be added into the table.
There is no evaluation system in Maryland for judges on our payroll. The only thing that comes close is found in the work of the Commission on Judicial Disabilities. There isn’t much information there (particularly in the cases where there was a “private reprimand”) for the consumer to see or go on. Where there is more detailed information, there aren’t usually specifics provided for what the judge did, only the rule that was violated by them. See ACTIONS done by them. Judges have rules and ethics they are supposed to adhere to, but their first duty should be to do their best.
It’s great in the 2010-2015 strategic plan to have a vision that hopes to “..serve the people with integrity and transparency.”, but it needs a lot of work if it hopes to “Make our processes more transparent, allowing the public to see what we do and how long it takes to do it.” See plan HERE. An inquiry made to the clerk’s office of the Court of Special Appeals for information that is found in the table below, returned the following response: “that’s not public information”. Obviously, it is public, if it was found and able to be compiled as it has been. Only after the statistical abstract was found, did it become clear that the information IS being tabulated by someone there, in order to be reported as it is being done yearly. Hopefully, that request will be fulfilled now.
As the Chief Judge Robert Murphy said in his 1996 speech, “All judges, at one time or another, have what some perceive as a lapse of good judgment — a lapse if it occurred, which must not be viewed in isolation, but rather in light of that individual’s achievements and contributions to our society during his or her judicial career.” If judges were looking at the people before them in a similar manner, it might be easier to do that. But in their rush to judgment, maybe to clear caseloads for purposes of having decent numbers, judges miss the opportunity to foster the public’s trust in the judicial system. Justice often times costs money, and it always costs a significant investment of time and energy that you can never get back. While it’s a job for the judge, it’s the life of the people involved.
On an important note, when a person is not satisfied with the decision of the Court of Special Appeals, it can ask the Court of Appeals to check it over. In the calendar year 2015, the Court of Appeals affirmed 36 COSA decisions, but reversed or vacated 28 COSA decisions. Translation: even the Court of Special Appeals gets it wrong on occasion. The raw data appears below.
Having a case in front of the COSA can be intimidating at first. I, like so many people, naively never considered that circuit court judges could make mistakes. Then, I read an opinion that detailed how a circuit court judge taunted an attorney in a case to “take it to Annapolis” when he ruled against him. My thought was that it shouldn’t be necessary if one is doing their best when they have it in front of them. But okay, perhaps it will just need to go from one court to the next, and to the next, for resolution.
So for all of those using the Maryland court systems to resolve issues, don’t be afraid to take it as far as you need to in order to be sure that you are getting the best chance for proper resolution. You will encounter people who can’t fathom why you are doing what you are doing, but do what you think you need to do after making an informed decision. You will even meet judges who would dissuade you from challenging the decisions made by their brethren. But if more cases end up making their way to appellate courts, resulting in decisions being reversed, the result would be some sort of change in the judicial processes and training that increase efficiency without sacrificing quality. That’s what healthcare and the aviation industry have already learned. There’s a balance between adhering to time standards in order to sweep through dockets, and taking the time to ensure that you are getting all of the information that you need in order to correctly rule and judge in accordance with the law. A judge shouldn’t be seen writing decisions at his desk instead of listening to testimony. Is a judge violating a rule or duty when he announces that he hasn’t read any of the filings that your attorney has billed you for preparing and submitting to them?
In this list of current members of The Conference of Circuit Judges (click HERE), a few of the judges appear on the list that had decisions reversed. The Conference serves as a policy advisory body to the chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. The conference works collaboratively and in consultation with the chief judge in developing policies affecting the administration of the circuit courts. Its 16 members include the circuit administrative judge from each of the eight judicial circuits and one circuit judge elected from each judicial circuit. Should their performance matter, and if so, who is tracking it?
P.S. Voters are going to be asked about raising the retirement age for judges from 70 to 75 in the upcoming 2016 election. You can read the Baltimore Sun story about it HERE. Some of the applicable judges are on the list. Voters should have more information before deciding such an important matter.
The Maryland judge reversal/vacate/affirm list
The raw data compilation report for unreported opinions
And the updates for Jan-Aug 2016:
raw data compilation report for reported opinions
Response from judiciary documenting attempt to get the information
**please use caution when using the info provided. There were cases in which some of the decision questioned was affirmed, and part was vacated or reversed. For purposes of the listing on this site, that means that an error was made and it got recorded that way appropriately on our listing. If five questions were posed in appeal, but the appeal court reversed one of them, it got recorded on the chart as “reverse”. The Maryland judiciary doesn’t tabulate it that way, but we have. In addition, there were a minor number of cases where one party did separate appeals involving the same case, and the appeals court reversed on all of them. This would cause a judge to get “dinged” for the total number of reversals, because they were separate cases. That is why the raw data is being supplied for the tabulation, so you can see. And yes, there are retiring judges on the list, but since many of them are still called to hear cases AFTER their retirement, that information is relevant.
If anyone has any questions about the information being supplied on this website (or have info that can help to fill in the gaps seen in the raw data), please email to firstname.lastname@example.org
A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of the truth. Einstein