ANNAPOLIS – Citing confusion to the general public and law researchers, advocates implored lawmakers Thursday to rename Maryland’s Court of Appeals and Court of Special Appeals.
Under a proposed constitutional amendment by Delegates Dana L. Dembrow, D-Montgomery, and Richard A. Palumbo, D-Prince George’s, the Court of Appeals would become the Supreme Court and the Court of Special Appeals the Appellate Court.
“We were not the impetus for this legislation, although we see the need for the name change,” Court of Appeals Judge Howard S. Chasnow told the House Judiciary Committee. “The names simply don’t represent what we do.”
Maryland and New York are the only states that don’t identify their highest court as the supreme court. Washington, D.C., also calls its highest court the Court of Appeals. If adopted, the bill would make Maryland’s court structure like that in Illinois, where the intermediate court also is the Appellate Court.
Most other states intermediate courts are called the Court of Appeals. However, most judges from Maryland’s appellate bench feared that giving that name — now used for the highest court — would cause confusion.
If the Legislature passes the bill, it would then go to voters in the 1998 general elections. If approved, the constitutional amendment would take affect in the year 2000.
“It’s time to modernize the simple names of the courts,” Palumbo said.
Maryland’s Court of Appeals was created by the Constitution of 1776. It considers special cases usually of public interest.
In 1995, it handled more than 700 petitions directly to its court, disposed of 146 cases on its docket and heard 47 attorney grievances, four questions of law from federal courts and 47 miscellaneous appeals, according to the Commission on the Future of Maryland Courts’ final report. Decisions heard in this court usually make judicial precedents for future cases.
The Court of Special Appeals was created in 1966 to help alleviate the higher court’s backlog, but it only handled criminal appeals, post-conviction proceedings and a few other legal issues. In 1974, it was given jurisdiction over all appeals except capital cases and certain election cases.
The Commission on the Future of Maryland’s Courts found that about 80 percent of Special Appeals cases only affect the particular dispute. The intermediate court issued 1,644 opinions in 1995.
“There’s nothing special about our Court of Special Appeals,” Dembrow said. “There’s nothing special about the appeals they handle.”
Efforts to change the courts’ names aren’t new. In 1992, the Judiciary Committee voted unfavorably on the same issue.
This year, the Maryland Judicial Conference, which is made up of all the state’s judges, sent a letter to the committee expressing its desire to preserve the historical name of the Court of Appeals. While members aren’t opposed to changing the name of the Court of Special Appeals, they feel that Appellate Court may be confusing.
Proponents of change say what’s confusing is doing legal research and trying to figure out that the Maryland Court of Appeals is the state’s highest court. When the court’s rulings are cited by other states, the citation usually has an explanation about the court’s status to prevent confusion. “Our Court of Appeals will be elevated in prestige, respect and authority when it is renamed what it is – the Supreme Court,” Dembrow said. “Our Court of Special Appeals will be elevated when it is renamed.” -30-