- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2014

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - Maryland’s highest court will take a second look at whether to require a lawyer at every defendant’s initial bail hearing.

The Court of Appeals announced on Thursday that it will hear oral arguments for the case on March 7.

The court ruled 4-3 last year that having an attorney at the initial bail hearing is a constitutional right. The state attorney general’s office later asked for a review of the decision. This was because staffing every bail hearing with a defense lawyer would cost $28 million to $30 million a year.

In the latest round of arguments, however, the attorney general’s office didn’t argue about whether having a lawyer at every bail hearing is a constitutional right.

Instead, the state was challenging technical aspects of an injunction by a city judge, Alfred Nance of Baltimore. Earlier this month, Nance ruled that the state must immediately start providing counsel for all defendants in Baltimore. The state argued that Nance’s order conflicted with other laws already on the books. It called his injunction “over-broad.”

Michael Schatzow, one of two attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said the legal issues are “a lot narrower” this time around. Rather than big questions of constitutional rights, this time the attorneys will argue about procedural matters.

But the state is still seeking to get the decision overturned; it’s simply taking a different tack. The effect would be the same.

Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor, has been advocating for this kind of representation for 16 years. His work with a group of students led to the class action.

His tone on Thursday afternoon was sorrowful.

“It results in more delay, and that’s what’s extremely disappointing,” he said.

The attorneys must file any new written arguments by early March, before the oral hearing.

No matter what the court decides later this year, reforms to Maryland’s bail process are looming over the legislative session. A group of judges has proposed bundling the first two bail hearings into a single conference, as a way of saving money and giving defendants quicker access to judges.

Mary Ellen Barbera, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, said in a legislative hearing Wednesday that the system was ripe for reform, and that she was grateful this court case had brought it to lawmakers’ attention.

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