How to judge city's judges

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

September 20, 1990|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

For the past two weeks, the Senate has been trying to get some idea of the type of justice David Souter would be if it affirmed his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But since Souter appears to be a strange little man who has never seen fit to express a public opinion on the burning social and legal issues of the day, and since the president's agents have coached him carefully in the fine art of evasion, it seems unlikely we will learn much about Souter until it is too late.

Obviously, we need to do better than that here in Baltimore.

Four people are running in the November general election for three spots on the city Circuit Court. The sitting judges are Ellen L. Hollander, Richard T. Rombro and John C. Themelis. The contender is District Court Judge Paul A. Smith.

And the question is just as vital here as it is in Washington: How do you judge a judge?

On that point, the candidates pretty much agree. They all focus on character and experience. During the primary, the sitting judges ran on their records. Their challengers talked about the need to have more blacks on the bench.

"Unlike other candidates for office, there's nothing that we can promise by way of any constituent services. What we can promise and what we offer is our character, our integrity, our experience and our qualifications," Hollander said.

"You look at ability, commitment, sensitivity -- the ability to be firm but fair," said Smith.

But I'm sorry. Characteristics such as integrity and intelligence are only the starting points, the givens.

And although it is important that the judiciary reflect the racial composition of the city, I am more interested in how a judge thinks than how he or she looks.

It is time we started looking at judicial policy in the criminal courts.

Right now, the nation's courts send more people to prison than ever before and for longer periods of time. According to the Department of Justice, the United States imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other developed nation in the world except the Soviet Union and South Africa.

Well, we know what judges in the Soviet Union and South Africa are trying to accomplish when they lock their populace up. But what do American judges -- what do Baltimore judges -- think they're doing?

Are they locking people up to punish them or to rehabilitate them?

If judges send people to prison to be punished, what about when they get out again? Our sad experience has been that inmates often come out of our penal warehouses angrier, crazier and deadlier than when they went in.

Is a punishment-oriented judge really protecting the public?

But how realistic is a judge being if he says he expects a defendant to be rehabilitated in prison? Corrections officials themselves say they don't have the resources to make even a dent in the tidal wave of wrong-doers that is swamping their system.

Is rehabilitation a viable policy?

None of the candidates for the city's Circuit Court had a good answer to those questions. Like Souter, all of them promise to approach each case with an open mind.

"Trial judges do not make policy and they cannot come into a case with a pre-set notion or policy," said Rombro. "My policy, if anything, is to listen to each individual case and decide it on its individual merits. Is the defendant a danger to society? Can he be rehabilitated? It's a judgment call."

"A judge has a lot of balls to balance, a lot of factors to weigh," Themelis said.

Each of the candidates said their role in the criminal justice system is a limited one: "It is not a judge's function to rehabilitate a defendant," Smith said.

"It is a judge's function to determine a sentence," he said. "It is the Division of Correction's job to rehabilitate, and their inability to do so in large numbers is something we all think about."

But the division blames the legislature for denying it the resources. The legislature blames the public and its focus on vengeance. The public blames the police and the prosecutor and the courts -- for being either too lenient or too cruel or both.

Meanwhile, the justice system is like some vast automated factory churning out widgets when no one knows what a widget is, or what it is good for.

No one has a policy. No one has a direction.

Worst of all, no one wants to take responsibility for finding one.

And so, out here on the streets where the bad guys roam, no one is ever really safe.

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