When I was assigned to the juvenile rotation in 2013, a fellow judge in Baltimore City told me that this would be the most important work I would do as a judge. I believed her then and I found it to be true. Juveniles can be put on a better path so they do not “graduate” to adult criminal court. They can and should be given a chance, indeed numerous chances, to mature and change without the burden of a criminal record. They can and should be given an opportunity to receive needed services and avoid a criminal record.
Those first 18 months in juvenile court were eye opening to say the least. I had already handled a major juvenile delinquency case in Prince George’s County in 2012 when all the judges in that county were recused from it. I also served on the State Advisory Board of the Department of Juvenile Services from 2016 to 2021. I had a second juvenile rotation in 2019 that lasted through my mandatory retirement from the bench in 2020. So, about a third of my time on the bench was spent hearing juvenile cases. By the time I retired, I had built up some expertise and experience in handling juvenile matters. Hopefully, I did more good than harm to the juveniles who appeared before me.
You may wonder how judges get assigned to the juvenile rotation. In some counties, there are no rotations because there are only one, two, or maybe five judges. Those judges hear all cases as they get assigned. In other larger counties, rotations are for six months or a year and judges get assigned according to seniority, preference, expertise or some combination thereof. And some jurisdictions allow judges to trade rotations among themselves. Not so in Montgomery County. Rotations are 18 months long and are, for the most part, as follows: Criminal, Family, Civil, Family/CINA, General, and Juvenile. We are told that a computer algorithm makes the assignments, but there are variations to that system as well. If a judge wants to have a family rotation, it is generally given to him or her. If a judge has a major issue with a rotation and creates enough of a problem in that rotation, sometimes the judge is re-assigned to a different rotation.
But there is also a special wrinkle to the normal rotation system and that relates to the unique history of the Juvenile Court in Montgomery County. In every other county (and Baltimore City), juvenile delinquency cases were handled in the various circuit courts around the state. For decades, however, Juvenile Court was part of the District Court in Montgomery County. For years, two judges of that court heard juvenile matters. They built up expertise in the area and had a keen interest in juveniles and their struggles.
Then in 2002, juvenile delinquency matters were transferred to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County and the court was expanded to handle the additional caseload. But for some reason, all judges then sitting in circuit court were excused from ever doing a juvenile rotation. Thus, from the beginning in circuit court, the juvenile rotation took on a disfavored status among the judges. It was something that had to be tolerated, but only for new judges as of that time. The court staff was kept apart, case managers and courtroom clerks were separated, and the courtrooms were relegated to the basement of the old District Court (formerly old circuit court), i.e., the Grey Courthouse. It was not until 2014 that Juvenile Court was brought across Maryland Avenue and housed in the South Tower, adjacent to the main circuit courthouse, which is now known as the North Tower.
There is another feature unique to the way Montgomery County has handled juvenile cases since they came to circuit court in 2002. In almost all counties (and Baltimore City), juvenile cases are largely heard by Juvenile Magistrates. Circuit Court judges are always available to hear exceptional cases or review decisions of the Magistrates, but day to day the juvenile cases begin and end with the Magistrates. Most counties and Baltimore City have utilized the services of juvenile magistrates for decades. These Magistrates are drawn from the ranks of lawyers who have special interest and expertise in the handling of juvenile matters. These magistrates generally have an interest and expertise that is honed over years of hearing juvenile cases. These magistrates do not rotate in and out of juvenile as do the judges in Montgomery County. They hear only juvenile delinquency cases or related child abuse and neglect cases (and some juvenile magistrates hear family law cases as well).
So, what does all of this mean to juveniles who appear as respondents in delinquency cases in Montgomery County as opposed to those in the other parts of Maryland? Until very recently, the two judges who heard juvenile cases in Montgomery County changed every 18 months. Only certain judges ever heard juvenile delinquency cases and those that did might have little experience or expertise in such matters. Even judges who might want to go to the juvenile rotation or stay there might not be able to do so because of the “algorithm” method of assignments. Because there were no juvenile magistrates hearing cases over long periods of time, there was little to no continuity in how juvenile cases were handled. A juvenile who entered the delinquency system as a 15-year-old might appear before two different judges for all or part of 18 months, then appear before two other judges when the next rotation went into effect, and then two new judges for the rotation after that one, and so on. Recall that juvenile court has jurisdiction over a juvenile until the age of 21, once obtained before the age of 18.
This lack of expertise, interest, and continuity is certainly not “best practices” for the running of a juvenile court. Couple this with the fact that prosecutors who handle delinquency cases generally stay in juvenile court for only a year or so. Again, this turnover is not the best way to prosecute in a juvenile delinquency system. DJS representatives who appear in court often change as well, so depending on who that person is, the recommendation of the Department of Juvenile Services can change to the detriment of a juvenile. The only stable part of the system comes from the Office of the Public Defender, which has a dedicated unit of attorneys who represent juvenile clients over the course of many years.
In 2020, Montgomery County finally hired a special juvenile magistrate who hears some juvenile matters, but one juvenile judge continues to hear the bulk of contested cases. So, it is still too early to tell whether that system change will make much of a difference. Hopefully, it will ultimately inure to the benefit of juvenile justice in Montgomery County.
In my next piece, I will examine the myriad discretionary decisions made by judges (and magistrates) in juvenile delinquency cases and the impact these decisions immediately have on the juveniles, with potentially lifelong consequences. The most important of these involve those cases that can be tried in juvenile or adult criminal court, but there are many others with serious impacts. Unfortunately, there seems to be a disparate impact on Black and Brown juveniles, to their detriment.
Judge Gary E. Bair (Ret.)
Of Counsel, RaquinMercer LLC