The Honorable Judge Fred S. Hecker, Associate Judge of the Circuit Court for Carroll County, Maryland recently spoke to Dr. Justine Madoo’s CCJS100 Introduction to Criminal Justice class about the court system in Maryland.
Every county has one Circuit Court and at least one District Court. 95% of all legal cases are handled in the state courts. Article 2 of the Maryland Constitution gives existence to the courts. Courts exist to resolve disputes, set reasonable limits on government, check other branches of government, and protect individuals’ rights.
The general qualifications to be a judge in Maryland are: be a legal citizen of the United States and Maryland; be registered to vote; be a Maryland resident for at least 5 years; reside in the county or city for at least 6 months; be at least 30 years of age and be a member in good standing of the Maryland Bar. A judge must also show he/she is distinguished in integrity, wisdom, and knowledge. Interested candidates for a judgeship must complete a lengthy application and go through an extensive interview process. A short list is provided to the Governor who then appoints judges. After the initial Governor’s appointment, circuit court judges must then run for election every 15 years. Federal judges are appointed for life. Some current Supreme Court justices are in their 80’s.
District Courts handle motor vehicle violations, misdemeanors, civil claims less than $30,000, and small claims and disputes. There are no jury trials in District Court. Circuit Courts handle serious criminal charges, major civil cases, juvenile/family law such as divorces or child custody cases, civil claims generally over $30,000 and all jury trials. The Court of Special Appeals is Maryland’s intermediate appellate court, and handles all reviewable judgements, decrees, and orders. The Court of Appeals is the highest court in the state; Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera presides over this court. This court does not take every case and is very selective about the cases they hear; only those cases that the Court of Appeals determines require their opinion.
Basic order of a trial is jury selection, opening statements, presentation of evidence, jury instructions, closing statements, jury deliberation, jury verdict, and sentencing in a criminal case. The state always goes first in presenting evidence and providing opening statements and they also get the opportunity to provide the final closing statement, because the burden is always on the state to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
In Maryland, judges, not juries, impose sentences. Maryland no longer has the death penalty; the most severe sentence is life without parole. Juror qualifications are: you must be at least 18 years of age; you must be a US citizen, and you must reside in the county or Baltimore city where the case is being heard. Generally, you are not qualified for jury service if you cannot read, write or speak English; if you have a disability that prevents you from providing satisfactory jury service, or you were convicted of a crime that for which you received a sentence of 6 months or more.
Jury selection entails a question and answer process to reveal any bias or prejudice by a potential juror. A criminal trial will have 12 jurors while a civil trial will have 6 jurors. Jury instructions include: 1. Apply the law as judge instructs, 2. Jury decides the facts, 3. Jury is the sole judge of credibility, 4. Verdict must be unanimous, and 5. In a criminal case, the jury is not to consider sentencing.