Maryland: comparing/contrasting 4 House bills seeking to change way Circuit Court judges are chosen; hearing this week

On Thursday the Maryland House Judiciary Committee is set to hear debate on 4 different constitutional amendments (HB 223, HB 224, HB 388, HB 448) to change the way the state’s Circuit Court judges are chosen. While all 4 move away from elections and towards a quasi-federal system, they differ in terms of mechanics.

Initial appointment: governor nominates, senate confirms (majority or supermajority)

All four provide that when a vacancy occurs in the Circuit Court, the governor would appoint someone meeting the minimum legal, age, and residency requirements for the office. In HB 224, HB 388, and HB 448, the governor’s pick would then be subject to senate confirmation by simple majority vote.

HB 223 stands apart here. Under the terms of that plan the Senate would have two levels of confirmation

  • 80%+: nominee is confirmed. No further action required.
  • 50.1%-79%: nominee is only confirmed for 1 year and must face a contested election in the next general election. Of the 13 states that use some form of legislative confirmation (House, Senate or both) none have a supermajority confirmation requirement.

The contested election under HB 223 also contemplates the candidates running against the sitting judge would be running to remove the judge from office but not necessarily for them to win the office itself. The “winning” candidate would only be able to force the judge out of office and create a new vacancy.

The approval or rejection of the judge by the registered voters shall be by contested election in which other candidates who are qualified for the office of circuit court judge may file as candidates. If the judge fails to win election in the general election, the office becomes vacant 10 days after certification of the election returns.

No default confirmation

Also notable is the lack of default confirmation in the 4 plans. In light of the delays in federal judicial confirmations the states that have considered or enacted confirmation plans (such Kansas for its Court of Appeals & Tennessee’s for all its appellate courts) have provided for a default confirmation that would put the nominee in office if the legislature failed to approve or reject in a certain time period.

Lack of judicial nominating commissions

All 4 plans avoid using a merit/commission based system which would restrict the governor to a list of individuals chosen by a judicial nominating commission. Although various Maryland governors have created such advisory commissions in the past, they are now at the discretion of the current governor. Only HB 448 discusses a commission and include a proviso that if a governor opts to create such a commission, “the commission or body shall reflect the demographic diversity of the state of the judicial circuit for which the commission or body is charged with proposing nominees.”

Additional terms in office: retention elections vs. reappointment & reconfirmation

The bills split on how judges would remain in office. HB 223 and HB 448 provide for reappointment & reconfirmation. HB 224 and HB 388 provide for yes/no retention elections in each county or the City of Baltimore (which is its own independent autonomous city not within any county).

Terms in office: keep 15 years or reduce down to 10 years

Another key difference between the bills is how long Circuit Judges would remain in office. Only HB 224 would keep the term at the current 15 years. The HB 223, HB 338, and HB 448 would reduce the term down to 10 years.

 

Maryland: Last year Senate President vowed to end Circuit Court elections; bill to do just that up for hearing next week

Last year after a House plan to end elections for Maryland Circuit Court judges was killed in committee, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller vowed “We’re going to pass it next year.” The Senate has now released its 2016 plan as SB 179. It is set for a hearing next Thursday (February 4).

Currently the Maryland Constitution (Art. IV, Sec. 3) requires the election of Circuit Judges to 15 year terms. The general elections are nonpartisan, however candidates for Circuit Court appear on partisan primary ballots (such as these races in 2014).

The Senate plan calls for

  • The Governor to appoint anyone meeting the minimum criteria (over 30, admitted to practice of law, state resident 5 years, circuit resident for 6 months)
  • Senate confirmation
  • Serve for term of 10 years (down from the present 15 years) or until age 70 (if the judge hits the mandatory retirement age midterm)
  • Reappointment by Governor after 10 year term
  • Reconfirmation by Senate

The House version rejected last year would have kept 15 year terms and replaced reappointment/reconfirmation with yes/no retention elections.

SB 179 contemplates, but does not require, creation of a judicial nominating commission or similar body to make recommendations to the governor. If such a commission is created SB 179 calls for the group to “reflect the demographic diversity of the state or the judicial circuit.”

 

 

Maryland hearing on usage and authorization for court facility dogs: bills in 6 other states pending/enacted recently

Over the last several years courts have grappled with when, and how, to allow the use of court facility dogs to assist witnesses and victims in giving testimony. A hearing set for today in Maryland’s Senate will examine the subject, while 6 other states have in the 2015/2016 legislative cycle either debated or in the case of Arkansas enacted statutes regarding facility dog usage.

Arizona: criminal cases, victim under 18, jury instruction required

HB 2375 of 2016 provides a court shall afford a victim who is under eighteen years of age the opportunity to have a facility dog accompany the victim while testifying in court. The court would be obligated to inform the jury “the facility dog is a trained animal, is not a pet owned by the victim witness and that the presence of the facility dog may not be interpreted as reflecting on the truthfulness of the testimony that is offered.”

HB 2375 cleared the House Judiciary Committee on January 20 and the House Rules Committee on January 25.

Arkansas: criminal cases, witness under 18, “appropriate jury instructions” required

HB 1855 of 2015 provided, subject to the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure, Arkansas Rules of Evidence, or other rule of the Supreme Court, if requested by either party in a criminal trial or hearing and if a certified facility dog is available within the jurisdiction of the judicial district in which the criminal case is being adjudicated, a child witness of the party shall be afforded the opportunity to have a certified facility dog accompany him or her while testifying in court. “In a criminal trial involving a jury in which the certified facility dog is utilized, the court shall present appropriate jury instructions that are designed to prevent prejudice for or against any party.”

HB 1855 was enacted as Act 957 of the 2015 session.

Connecticut: criminal cases, violent crime victim, nothing on jury instructions

HB 5364 of 2015 provided that that in any criminal prosecution involving an alleged violent crime and testimony from a victim of such crime, such victim shall be permitted to be accompanied by a therapy dog while testifying in the criminal prosecution, provided such dog is not visible to the jury.

HB 5364 was filed in 2015 but never advanced out of committee.

Hawaii: any “judicial proceeding”, “vulnerable witness”, jury instructions “to the extent necessary”

HB 1668 of 2016 and the identical SB 2112 provide a court may permit the use of a facility dog involving the testimony of a vulnerable witness if the court determines that there is a compelling necessity for the use of a facility dog to facilitate the testimony of the vulnerable witness. “To the extent necessary, the court may impose restrictions, or instructions to the jury, regarding the presence of the facility dog during the proceedings.”

Both bills are pending in their respective Judiciary Committees.

Maryland: criminal proceedings, child witness, nothing on jury instructions

SB 55 of 2016 provides a court may allow a facility dog or therapy dog to accompany a child witness. There is no mention of jury instructions.

SB 55 is pending before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and it set for a hearing today (January 26).

New York: criminal proceedings, “vulnerable witness”, lengthy jury instruction

AB 389 of 2015 and the identical SB 231 provide that a court shall permit the use of a facility dog when, in a criminal proceeding involving the testimony of a vulnerable witness, the court determines by a preponderance of the evidence that it is likely that such witness will be unable to effectively communicate if required to testify without the presence of such facility dog and that the presence of such facility dog will facilitate such testimony. Both bills include a lengthy jury instruction statement

A jury instruction shall be given both before and after the appearance of the facility dog with the witness and at the conclusion of the trial. Such instruction shall include that the dog is a highly trained professional who is properly referred to as a “courthouse facility dog.” Included in this shall be the emphasis that the dog is not a pet, is not owned by the witness and is equally available to both the prosecution and defense under certain circumstances. Such instruction shall include that the presence of the facility dog is in no way to be interpreted as reflecting on the truthfulness of the testimony offered. Such instruction shall also include that the presence of the dog is a reasonable accommodation to the witness in allowing them to fulfill the obligation of testifying in a court of law.

Neither bill advanced out of committee in the 2015 session and were carried over into the 2016 session.

Tennessee: any civil or criminal proceeding, witness fitting criteria, nothing on jury instructions

HB 1987 of 2016 and the identical SB 1618 provide a court may allow the use of a courthouse facility dog for any civil or criminal proceeding for a witness. The court, in deciding on whether to permit the usage, may consider

  1. The age of the witness
  2. The nature of the witness’s relationship to the events giving rise to the proceeding
  3. Whether the witness suffers from any disability
  4. The rights of the parties to the proceeding
  5. Any other factors that the court deems relevant in facilitating the effective communication of information by the witness and protecting the rights of the parties to the proceeding.

HB 1987 has been filed but not yet assigned to a committee. SB 1618 is in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

 

Maryland Legislative Year in Review: clerk of court may reject false liens

Law

HB 54 Creates surcharges on various court filings for Circuit Court Real Property Records Improvement Fund.

SB 77 Prohibits filing false liens on judges and others. Permits clerk to reject filings. (note House version HB 312  was vetoed as duplicative of SB 77)

SB 103 Allows specified members of the Judges’ Retirement System (JRS) who are subject to mandatory retirement before vesting to receive a prorated retirement allowance based on their years of service.

2015 efforts to changing civil jurisdiction thresholds: Nevada and Washington enact

Last year around this time I noted a trend towards increasing civil jurisdiction thresholds for some limited jurisdiction courts.

Most states have at least 2 levels of trial court, with a civil jurisdiction amount dividing them. For example a $1,000 civil case may be filed in the limited jurisdiction court, but a $100,000 case may only be permitted in the general jurisdiction court. Changes to this threshold can change the way courts are managed or function as caseloads and revenues rise/fall as a result.

This year saw 5 efforts to raise these limits, including 2 states where changes were enacted.

Maryland: District Courts have exclusive original civil jurisdiction in specified civil cases up to $30,000 (Md. COURTS AND JUDICIAL PROCEEDINGS Code Ann. § 4-401). The threshold was $25,000 but was increased in 2007 (HB 1109). No other efforts to increase the threshold were made in the past decade until 2015. HB 461 would have increased the jurisdiction of the District Court to $50,000 while HB 719 would have raised the jurisdiction to $50,000 but only for first-party motor vehicle insurance benefits for uninsured motorist coverage. Both bills were withdrawn by their respective authors.

Nevada: Nevada’s Justice Courts had jurisdiction in civil cases up to $10,000 since a 2003 law (AB 100) increased the threshold from $7,500 (Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 4.370(1)(a)). Since then there have been no efforts to change the provisions until 2015. AB 66 as enacted now increases that threshold from $10,000 to $15,000 effective January 1, 2017.

South Carolina: Magistrate Court is effectively the state’s small claims court, with a concurrent jurisdiction with the Circuit Court up to only $7,500 (S.C. Code Ann. § 22-3-10). Nearly a dozen efforts had been made in the past decade and 2015 was no exception. SB 53 would have increased the jurisdiction to $10,000 and required mediation for cases below $5,000. SB 325 would have simply provided an increase from $7,500 to $10,000. Neither bill advanced out of committee.

New York: There are five types of limited jurisdiction courts with civil jurisdiction, each with its own threshold:

  • $25,000 for NYC Civil Court and County Courts (NY CLS NYC Civil Ct Act § 201 & NY CLS Jud § 190(1))
  • $15,000 for City and District Courts (NY CLS UCCA § 202 & NY CLS UDCA § 201)
  • $3,000 for Town and Village Courts (NY CLSUJCA § 201(a))

AB 1935 would have raised the jurisdiction of the Town and Village Courts to $5,000. As all prior efforts introduced in the last decade, it never advanced out of committee.

Washington: The state’s District Courts had civil jurisdiction in cases up to $75,000 (Rev. Code Wash. (ARCW) § 3.66.020). The threshold had previously been $50,000, but that was increased in 2008 (HB 2557). A prior effort to increase to $75,000 had previously died in committee without a hearing (SB 5322 of 2005). This year saw two efforts in increase the limit, with one reaching enactment.

  • SB 5125 raises the limit from $75,000 to $100,000. It met with unanimous approval in House and Senate committees and on the floors of each chamber and was signed into law by the governor with an effective date of July 24, 2015.
  • HB 1248 would have raised the limit from $75,000 to $100,000 but also adjusted the threshold for mandatory arbitration from $15,000 to $75,000 in the Senate amended version. The bill was approved 78-19 in the House and was approved as amended by the Senate Law & Justice Committee but died on the Senate floor.

States Expand Protections Against False Liens for Public Officials

During this legislative session, seven states passed measures that expand protections against the filing of false liens—a legal claim to property for unpaid debt—for public officials, and one other state is still considering such a measure. Over the past 20 years, an increasing number of individuals have taken to filing false liens against public officials, a form of harassment that the FBI has dubbed “paper terrorism.” The states have responded by allowing clerks and filing offices to reject such claims, as recommended by the National Association of Secretaries of State, and by increasing civil and criminal penalties.

In addition to the seven states that passed measures this year, there are a number of other states with existing protections. In 2012, this blog covered the efforts of six states (here and here) to pass such measures, three of which were ultimately successful. Similarly, there were eight states in 2013, and five states in 2014, that successfully passed such legislation. The following is a review of efforts in the states to protect judges and other public officials from false liens during the 2015 legislative session.

Passed
Indiana HB 1371 amends existing law prohibiting the filing of false liens to include those who do not currently hold office but have in the preceding four years and provides that liens will be voided if a suit has not commenced within 30 days.

Maryland SB 77 provides that if the filing office believes a claim to be false, they must notify the subject of the filing, state their reasons for believing it is false, and terminate it in 45 days unless the claimant files an affidavit under the penalties of perjury that provides for the claim’s validity. If the filing office still believes the claim to be false after receiving the affidavit, the office may terminate the claim in 45 days unless the claimant petitions for a judicial determination of its validity. (Note: The Governor vetoed HB 312 as duplicative).

Nevada SB 197 amends existing law to prohibit and classify as a category B felony the filing of a false lien or other encumbrance “against the real or personal property of a public officer, candidate for public office, public employee, or participant in an official proceeding, or a member of [their] immediate family” based on the performance of or failure to perform the duties relating to their office or employment. The subject of the fraudulent claim is permitted to bring civil suit against the claimant under this statute.

New Jersey AB 2481 authorizes the filing office to reject a claim it reasonably believes to be materially false or fraudulent because it is (1) filed against a current or former officer or employee of any federal, state, county, local, or other government unit; (2) relates to their performance or failure to perform the duties relating to their office or employment; and (3) “for which the filer does not hold a properly executed security agreement or judgment from a court of competent jurisdiction.” The statute allows the filing office to reject claims filed by incarcerated individuals. The official or employee against whom the claim is filed is also authorized to bring civil suit, and the court is authorized to grant awards up to $2000 or damages incurred and enjoin the defendant from filing any future liens, encumbrances, or court actions without the approval of the court. (Note: The existing statute already included the provision that the filing of a false lien against a public official or employee is a second degree crime).

North Carolina SB 83 amends existing law concerning the filing of false liens or encumbrances against the real or personal property of a public officer, public employee, or their immediate family. The measure authorizes the register of deeds or clerk of court to refuse to file a claim that they reasonably suspect to be fraudulent. The measure also provides an appeals process for denied filings.

North Dakota HB 1307 amends existing law to classify the threatening of a public servant, including the filing of false liens, as a class A misdemeanor for a first offense, and a class C felony for second and subsequent offenses.

Pending
California AB 1267 expands existing protections against false liens to apply to lawsuits and other encumbrances against public officials with the intent to harass. It also provides that the subject of the fraudulent claim can request an order directing the claimant to appear in court to defend the claim. AB 1267 was passed by both the House and Senate, but is still awaiting the Governor’s approval.

Pennsylvania SB 212 classifies the filing of a false lien, in addition to any other unlawful action that attempts to influence, intimidate, or hinder a public official or law enforcement officer from performing their duties, as a misdemeanor of the second degree. This bill is still pending in committee.

Changes to mandatory judicial retirement ages: Virginia plan now law; Oregon voters will decide in November 2016 on repeal; Massachusetts proposal rejected

Since April’s update on the subject of mandatory judicial retirement age changes there’s been several developments.

Alabama

While the state does not have a retirement age per se, it does prohibit judges from seeking election or being appointed to fill a vacancy if they are above the age of 70. Efforts to raise this to 72 were approved in the House and appeared to have Senate backing before time ran out in the session. Critics argued the constitutional amendment was specifically designed to allow 68 year old Chief Justice Roy Moore to seek one more term in office.

Louisiana

Despite voters in 2014 rejecting a constitutional amendment repealing the mandatory retirement age for most judges in the state, at least some judges will be able to avoid being forced out at 70. Under HB 350 as signed into law, justices of the peace in office as of August 15, 2006 can continue to run for re-election over the age of 70.

Massachusetts

A plan to increase the mandatory retirement age for judges in that state from 70 to 76 was rejected in committee in late April.

North Carolina

Several efforts to increase the mandatory retirement age for judges met with approval in the House but were not taken up by the Senate prior to adjournment. Those bills could come back up in the 2016 session.

Oregon

Voters will get to decide in 2016 whether or not to repeal the state’s mandatory judicial retirement age. Under SJR 4 as approved by the legislature in late June the constitutional provision allowing the legislature to set a retirement age would be stricken.

Virginia

Virginia appellate judges as of today (July 1), will see their mandatory judicial retirement age increase from 70 to 73 under a bill signed into law this spring. However, only those trial judges elected or appointed after July 1, 2015 would get the increase to 73; all other trial judges remain at the mandatory retirement age of 70. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe had asked the legislature to amend the bill (HB 1984) to apply the increase to all judges, and the state’s Senate was willing to do so, however the House insisted on the split treatment.

Continue reading Changes to mandatory judicial retirement ages: Virginia plan now law; Oregon voters will decide in November 2016 on repeal; Massachusetts proposal rejected