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Ballot Questions to Modernize Court Procedure

By Joe Palazzolo
Capital News Service
Friday, Nov. 3, 2006

WASHINGTON - In the 1850s, Marylanders could demand a jury trial for any dispute over $5. Even adjusted for inflation -- today, that would be about $111 -- it was a bargain.

More than 150 years later, a person can still insist on a jury trial for an argument over a sum equal to the price of a six pack of Bud or a McDonald's Extra Value Meal, thanks to a constitutional thread overlooked by lawmakers for the last 35 years.

In an age when jury trials regularly cost the court more than $5,000, legislators and swamped judges say the $5 limit needs to be raised -- significantly.

Voters will ultimately decide Nov. 7 via ballot Question 3 whether to raise the threshold in civil proceedings to $10,000. It's one of two court-related questions on the general election ballot.

"We just cannot afford to try cases with jury trials over $5, or even $5,000," said Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Thomas P. Smith. "It would grind us to a halt."

The General Assembly thought it had the jury trial problem licked in the 1990s, when it increased the threshold to $10,000. But the Court of Appeals found that the bills' authors hadn't confronted a part of the Maryland Declaration of Rights that says the right to trial by jury is inviolate.

"It's an anomaly. We thought we had corrected it in 1996, and the General Assembly thought they had had the authority (to increase the sum) all along. We just missed it in the law," said Smith.

The court's decision in 2004, threw out the corrective effort and reinstated the 19th-century limit of $5. Question 3, if passed, would bring the statutes up to date, said Delegate Michael D. Smigiel Sr., R-Elkton, a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

"It's cost-prohibitive to have a jury trial that costs thousands of dollars, and for the litigants to spend a couple-of-thousand dollars on legal fees over a small sum," Smigiel said. "You don't want the cost of the hearing to exceed the amount in dispute."

Voters also will be asked to decide another question of court procedure by changing the jurisdiction for some Circuit Court appeals from Maryland's highest court to the Court of Special Appeals. The change would set into law what is now common practice.

This problem, too, has its origin in an oversight, this one in the 1960s when the General Assembly was amending Maryland's Constitution to make way for a new Court of Special Appeals.

When a Circuit Court case is appealed in banc -- to a panel of three Circuit Court judges -- the party who files the appeal must accept the judges' decision, win or lose. But the other party in the case is entitled to appeal.

The Court of Special Appeals was created in 1966 to guarantee appeals from lower courts, freeing the Court of Appeals of Maryland, the state's highest court, to choose which cases it hears, like the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the language for in banc appeals was never updated to give the new Court of Special Appeals jurisdiction. Then in 2005, the Court of Appeals ruled that it must hear appeals from in banc Circuit Court decisions, meaning the other party's appeal in an in banc decision wasn't guaranteed.

Question 2, if passed, would give the Court of Special Appeals jurisdiction and guarantee an appeal to the entitled party in an in banc decision.

"We think this is an appropriate change of the law," said Kathleen H. Meredith, chairwoman of the Maryland State Bar Association's Litigation Section Council. "It essentially establishes what many people already thought existed."

The Maryland Bar also supports Question 3, Meredith said, calling both "no-brainers."

Question 2 amounts to little more than "housekeeping," added Smigiel, who authored the bill underwriting the ballot question.

"Everybody for the last 30 years has been taking their appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, but the Maryland Constitution says the appeal has to go to the Court of Appeals," Smigiel said. "What this does is to correct a statutory oversight that left the in banc appeals going directly to the court of appeals."


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