Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Greatest Part-time Job in the World, Part II

Part I I described the District Court of Maryland as a part-time job for its judges.

That’s no reflection on the job most of them actually do while on the bench. With exceptions, including two I named, most of the judges on the District Court handle their work responsibly and conscientiously.

Some even work harder than the job requires. Judge Charlotte Cooksey single-handedly created Mental Health Court, a specialized court to handle the mentally ill who cycle through the criminal justice system in Baltimore. Judge Jamey Hueston made similar efforts to bring Drug Treatment Court to the Baltimore District Court two decades ago.

But the basic demands on a District Court judge in criminal court does not, for the most part, require a full week of work. It’s a court of little consequence, designed for maximum manipulation by defendants charged with misdemeanors. As a result, the Circuit Court, which handles jury trials and felony cases, is manipulated as well.

I once heard Judge Ben C. Clyburn, now the chief judge of the District Court, once describe the District Court as a “postponement and probation court that lacks finality.” He was speaking as a member of a committee created to improve the status quo, and I appreciated both his honesty and his efforts to change things. Too many colleagues of his colleagues are quite content with their job.

Go to a district criminal courtroom in Baltimore one morning and it would appear very busy, a kind of controlled chaos. But underneath the surface, there’s little of substance.

First come the cases dropped for lack of evidence or witnesses. Then, as Judge Clyburn pointed out, defendants get either a postponement of their case or probation. Postponements are wonderful for defendants because witnesses will eventually stop coming to court. And when defendants run out of postponements in the District Court they can, in most cases, demand a jury trial in the Circuit Court, which brings more postponements.

If a prosecutor offers probation in the District Court many defendants will take it. But if the prosecutor doesn’t recommend it, or the judge won’t agree, it’s on to the Circuit Court.

Defendants may opt for a court trial with the hope of an acquittal. Or they may not have the right to a jury trial if it’s a very minor case. But if a District Court judge convicts them after a trial, no problem. They have an automatic right to start over again.

Appeals from convictions in the Circuit Court are based on legal errors or some gross unfairness. But appeals from the District Court are “de novo”, which stands for do-over. An appeal wipes out the first trial and sends it to the Circuit Court, no questions asked. It doesn’t matter how fair the trial or how clear the evidence. The District Court trial merely served as a dress rehearsal.

Victims and witnesses must go through more postponements at the Circuit Court. Assuming they stick around long enough, they have to testify all over again. For them the do-over appeal is a nonsensical, burdensome system.

Even defendants who plead guilty in the District Court can start over at the Circuit Court. They can offer to plead guilty in return for the prosecutor dropping some charges. But on appeal from the guilty plea the dropped charges stay dropped. It’s a nifty little way to manipulate the system.

Defendants can even appeal when they violate a District Court judge’s probation and get a whole new hearing in front of a Circuit Court judge who knows nothing about the original case (and could often care less.)

The bottom line? The Circuit Court matters. The District Court doesn’t.

And a corollary to that: The rights of defendants count. The rights of victims and witnesses don’t.

The District Court is designed in every way possible to inconvenience victims and witnesses and give defendants multiple chances to “beat the charges.” Yet because the District Court is supposed to handle the minor cases in the system, its judges are forced to play the game.

Deny a postponement? Refuse to promise probation? The defendant will just demand a jury trial and burden the Circuit Court with a misdemeanor case. And if by chance a District Court judge actually conducts a trial and convicts someone, who cares? The defendant can just appeal and start over again. There’s little incentive to conduct a proper trial.

None of this benefits the Circuit Court or the criminal justice system. When misdemeanor jury trials come to the Circuit Court in numbers impossible to provide courtrooms for, Circuit Court judges play Let’s Make a Deal.

District Court plea offers and sentences get chopped down to nothing. Defendants on probation for something serious, like a gun or violent crime, can often get Baltimore Circuit Court judges to work out “package deals” that won’t violate their probation if convicted on a new offense.

So misdemeanor cases don’t count in the District because they are not allowed to count, while the Circuit Court is too busy to handle them. The only ones in the criminal justice system who benefit are defendants.

So the District docket dance goes on. The most popular judges are not those who take their time to do careful work, because careful work is neither necessary nor valued. It’s those who finish fastest so everyone can get out of there.

And so we find judges on the golf course, in the stores, at their children’s schools, or employed in other occupations during normal working hours. The judges aren’t needed to actually judge cases, only to preside over a clearinghouse that winnows out cases through attrition of witnesses and manipulation of the system.

The General Assembly created this system. And while it once showed some willingness to change it, it ultimately failed to so.

It needs to act now, and make the District Court mean something to the justice system. 

1 comment:

  1. The root of the probelm is the backwards structure of the Maryland Criminal Code. Maryland has 20 year misdemeanors. In many other states misdemeanors are district court cases with no jury trial right. Juries are saved for felony cases only. In order for the system to have any true reformation the first thing that needs to happen is a total restructuring of the criminal code to create a bright line distinction between felonies and misdemeanors and keep all misdemeanors in district court. You will most assuredly see district court trials then as guys who are on probation will not be ably to kick it downtown. The system is designed not to work, and it works as designed.