By Maya Kushner, Esq. and Marc Emden, Esq.
Legal systems vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. One of the aspects that sets the Maryland judicial system apart from those of its tristate area neighbors is its use of District Court commissioners. Commissioners are judicial officers who are appointed by the Chief Judge of the District Court of Maryland. They are not judges and thus have limited powers, but they have a wide range of responsibilities and can exercise tremendous influence over people charged with crimes.
A commissioner is usually the first point of contact in the Maryland judicial system. For example, when an individual is arrested, he is brought before a commissioner, who will advise him of his rights, decide on a bond amount, and set other pre-trial release conditions — commissioners preside over 200,000 bail hearings in Maryland per year. Commissioners also review charging papers prepared by police and citizens to determine if sufficient evidence exists to charge someone with a crime. They also review warrant applications and issue arrest and search & seizure warrants. Commissioners are also often the first ones to preside over domestic violence and harassment cases, where they decide whether to issues an Interim Peace/Protective Order (also known as an Interim Stay Away Order). A few days later a judge hears the case to decide whether the order should be extended, becoming a Temporary Order.
Given the size of judges’ dockets, going before a commissioner instead of a judge often means that your case will be heard sooner. Also, judges have regular work hours: Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm, while at least one county commissioner is always available in each county: 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. For arrestees, this means that if you are arrested in Maryland at 6pm on a Friday, you can see a commissioner right away, receive your release conditions, and be back home that same night. While if you’re arrested in DC or Virginia, you may have to stay in jail until you can see a judge on Monday morning. Even though you’re not appearing before a judge, your rights are still protected: according to a recent case from the Maryland Court of Appeals, those charged with crime have the right to hire a lawyer (or have one appointed) to represent them at hearings before the commissioner. Finally, the commissioners’ work schedule is good news for victims of domestic violence and other abuse: if an incident occurs in the middle of the night, the victim can see a commissioner right away and obtain an Interim Peace/Protective Order or seek the issuance of criminal charges.
Some have expressed concern that Maryland’s system of commissioners has few guidelines for who can serve as a commissioner. Maryland Article – Courts and Judicial Proceedings § 2-607, which codifies the system of commissioners, only requires that the commissioner be an adult resident of the county in which he or she serves. There are no educational requirement, which means that most commissioners are not lawyer, and have no other specialized legal education. For this reason, some experts believe that District Court commissioners often sent bonds that are too high and that their decisions are not as well reasoned as those of District Court judges.
However, commissioners do receive legal training before they assume their duties. In fact, judges of the District Court of Maryland serving on the Commissioner Education Committee have created an extensive reference manual advising commissioners not only on the proper legal standards for each crime, but also on their duty to be fair and impartial. For example, in the introduction, the manual states that “[b]ecause a Commissioner is a judicial officer, it must never be said that a Commissioner is guilty of any political bias, and so a Commissioner, like a judge, is prohibited from engaging in partisan political activity.” Thus, even though commissioners have fewer powers than judges, they are held to the same high behavioral standards. The manual also reminds commissioners that their judgement must be independent, stating that “they are not members of any law enforcement agency, nor are they subordinates of any police officer in this State, no matter how highly placed. The Commissioner is a member of the judicial branch of government; the police forces of this State are part of the executive branch, and although the greatest degree of cooperation between those branches is necessary and desirable, each branch is supreme in its constitutional duties and neither is superior to the other.”
While Maryland’s Commissioner system is not perfect, Emdenlaw believes that this system gives members of the public much greater access to the legal system than those of Virginia and the District of Columbia. It affords defendants speedier justice and gives victims of crimes more opportunities to redress their grievances promptly.