ANNAPOLIS – Decisions by retired Baltimore County Judge Robert Cahill Sr. were reversed more frequently than those of any of his judicial counterparts, a Capital News Service review of appeals court decisions from the 2000 term has found.
An analysis of Court of Appeals and Court of Special Appeals opinions, both reported and unreported, found that Cahill was reversed seven times, more than any other judge that term.
Three current Circuit Court judges, Michael Loney of Anne Arundel County, James B. Dudley of Howard County and John C. Themelis of Baltimore City, had six cases each reversed in the same term.
The analysis included 145 Court of Appeals cases and 1,891 Court of Special Appeals cases decided from the 2000 docket. A total 292 cases were reversed at least in part, and 130 different judges had at least one case reversed that term.
The 2000 term was chosen for review in order to capture a complete year. The appeals courts have no set time frame for releasing opinions and the majority of decisions come in a different term than that in which they are heard.
“Seven is so striking, so is five or six, especially when the majority of judges are at one or two (or less),” said William L. Reynolds II, the Jacob A. France Professor of Judicial Process at University of Maryland School of Law. “That says to me that these judges are out of line with the (higher courts’) thinking.”
However others argue that independent-thinking judges who follow their instincts are not necessarily a bad thing.
“As a trial court judge, you do the thing you think is right,” said Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., chief judge of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. “That is why there are appellate courts. That is why there are erasers on pencils, so to speak.”
“Reversed, affirmed, vacated does not tell the story,” he said referring to the three possible rulings available to an appeals court. “A good judge is not afraid of being reversed.”
Cahill seemed surprised to learn his reversal rate, but said, “I don’t keep a score sheet, nor do I think they should. . . . If you worry about that when you are deciding trials, you won’t be a good judge.”
However, Reynolds said it is not the trial judge’s job to interpret the law as they see fit. That’s the job of the appeals court, he said.
“When trial judges stray from the teachings of the appeals court it makes everyone’s job harder,” he said. “In some ultimate sense, the trial judge at issue may be more right, but that is not their duty. Their duty is to follow the law.”
Cahill said he’s been persuaded by an appeals court’s decision many times, but there have been other times when he does not think he was wrong on the question of law.
Cases are typically appealed to a higher court either because of a suspected error by the trial judge or because the parties believe the judge interpreted the law incorrectly.
“It is quite difficult to get a reversal on an error of fact because the appellate court usually assumes the trial judge is in the best position to see witnesses live,” said Professor Jonathan Siegel from George Washington University Law School.
“But we don’t show deference to the trial judge in errors of law because the appellate courts believe they know the law as well as the trial judge. If we (appellate judges) did, then laws would differ depending on the trial judge,” Siegel said.
There are three main reasons why cases are reversed on appeal, said David Palmer, chairman of the Maryland State Bar Association judicial administration section: Because a trial judge interprets the law differently than the appeals court, because the judge failed to properly instruct the jury, or where the judge must balance two legal rights against each other.
However, when it comes to why one particular judge has more reversed cases than another, the experts say it is not straightforward. The type and number of cases a judge hears is a factor, and some believe the demographics of the jurisdiction plays a role.
On the whole, civil cases have a higher reversal rate than criminal cases because they involve much more complex issues. In criminal cases, a judge or jury must only decide a person’s guilt or innocence. Civil cases involve many different issues and a judge could be overturned on any part of his decision.
In addition, in counties with a more active docket, judges have a greater chance for reversal, both because of the volume of cases and the number of rulings each case entails.
“A judge is making 10 to 12 legal rulings in a case in a day so there is a possibility that one of them will be overturned,” said Jose Anderson, a law professor at the University of Baltimore. “You just have a very heavy docket where you have a lot of opportunities to make tough calls.”
Murphy agrees. He points to the example of a family court judge who has to make a lot of smaller decisions in a complex divorce case.
“He could have gotten seven or eight of them correct but he may be reversed on one little thing, like the amount of alimony or something like that.”
The majority of cases Cahill oversaw were civil and six of his reversals came in civil trials. One involved very complex issues regarding an international treaty.
All of Dudley’s reversed cases were civil and Loney and Themelis only had one criminal reversal each.
Another factor to consider is that parties in a civil suit must pay for their own appeals, so judges in wealthier counties like Howard, Baltimore and Anne Arundel may see more appeals.
Baltimore County in particular has an active pre-trial settlement court, and so Cahill said the cases that actually go to trial are either the very small cases or the very large, complex cases.
Small cases don’t get appealed, he said because they are not worth the cost.
Finally, it may just come down to the issue of time. Trial judges must hear evidence and make decisions the same day. Higher courts have a panel of judges who can take as long as they need to render a decision.
“Trial judges don’t have the luxury of appellate review,” Murphy said. “It is much easier to hear 30 minutes of argument on the relevant points and read a 35-page brief.”