GREENBELT – By the time a clerk rolls an overflowing two- tiered document cart into the courtroom, a dozen lawyers and about 50 clients are already milling about – an hour and a half before visiting Judge L. Edward Friend will start hearing cases.
Clients, mostly in T-shirts and jeans, sit like quiet parishioners in the court’s two rows of four wooden pews while lawyers jostle about the attorneys’ tables trying to settle some of the 100-plus bankruptcy cases that Friend will process before lunchtime.
Bankruptcy cases in Maryland have mushroomed from 10,311 in 1990 to 24,347 last year, saddling Maryland’s four U.S. Bankruptcy Court judges with nearly double the recommended caseload and leading to congressional calls for more judges to help the over-taxed system.
“There’s always a backlog,” said Bankruptcy Judge Duncan Keir. “We see a complete inelasticity in the court’s docket to handle more lengthy matters.”
The backlogged docket translates into marathon courtroom sessions and nervous debtors waiting months for hearing dates.
In a recent case, lawyers predicted the trial could take place in a day. When the trial ran over, debtor and creditor had to wait more than a month to continue their arguments, the judge said.
There also are pretrial motions and other paper work that do not require court time but do need a judge’s attention.
“We routinely have several shopping carts full of files brought to each judge to review those matters,” Keir said.
The bankruptcy overload is not unique to Maryland. Across the nation, bankruptcy cases continue to rise, with 702,241 filings for the first six months of 1997, more than the national total for all of 1996, according to the U.S. Administrative Office of the Courts.
Maryland’s senators are pushing Congress to create two more bankruptcy judgeships for the state – one permanent and one temporary. There are now two judges in Greenbelt and two in Baltimore.
New judgeships are “desperately needed,” Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., said in an interview.
“If you don’t settle claims expeditiously, both debtors and creditors are adversely affected,” Sarbanes said.
Sarbanes and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., joined 16 other senators in asking the Senate Judiciary Committee to match House- passed legislation that would create the two additional judgeships for Maryland and 16 others around the nation.
“With every passing month, and with the rate of filings increasing … legislation is all the more essential,” the senators wrote to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary administrative oversight for the courts subcommittee.
In Maryland, the caseload for the first six months of this year is up 33.6 percent compared to the first half of last year – 6,041 to 8,068, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute.
Grassley’s subcommittee also has heard from bankruptcy judges who have said the caseload is often overwhelming.
“Each district for which a new judgeship has been requested had already experienced a sustained period of filings constituting a caseload that far exceeded the abilities of its judges to administer,” said Judge David Thompson, who heads the federal judiciary’s bankruptcy committee.
The U.S. Administrative Office of the Courts recommends judges handle no more than 1,000 to 1,500 weighted case hours a year. Each of Maryland’s bankruptcy judges has more than 2,200 hours a year.
Grassley has not decided if he will support the legislation for new bankruptcy judges, said spokeswoman Melissa Carney.
Bankruptcy attorneys attribute the rise in filings to an increasingly competitive loan market, which has led lenders to extend credit to both firms and individuals who traditionally would not have qualified.
“My office files roughly 100 consumer cases a month, and there seems to be no end to it,” said Lawrence Holzman, a bankruptcy lawyer in Rockville.
The long court delays can force debtors to pay more than they would normally have to, and creditors also can suffer as people who owe money shelter or deplete their assets.
Keir said the backlog also has a “real economic cost” for the region because money that could be used to build businesses or fix homes is taken out of circulation while creditors and debtors wait for hearings.
“No one involved in bankruptcy gains from delay,” the judge said.