'Heart and soul' of the district court must leave

MICHAEL OLESKER ejB

July 09, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

After his second heart operation, Judge Joseph Ciotola happened to bump into Timothy D. Murphy, the city councilman from southwest Baltimore.

"How are you feeling?" Murphy asked.

"Wonderful," said Ciotola, who is 71 years old, "but the doctors tell me I've got to cut back on my work days."

This was like a higher court handing him a written decision. Naturally, the judge listened to them. Instead of arriving for work each day at 5 o'clock in the morning, as he'd done for years, Ciotola would dawdle at home and show up as late as 6 in the morning.

Today, Ciotola, the man who oversees the biggest and busiest lower court system in the state -- the district court of Baltimore -- was to arrive at work for the last time as administrative judge. What surgery on his aorta didn't do, and what a heart bypass didn't do, the U.S. Supreme Court has done.

They've retired him against his will.

The high court recently upheld state laws subjecting elected and appointed judges to mandatory retirement at 70.

"And so," Ciotola said yesterday, "like a little bird, I'm flying."

He had the sound of one who's been wounded. From the moment he became a judge 15 years ago, it's been a labor of love for him, even as the parade of troubled humanity tore at his insides.

"He's given it his heart and soul," District Court Judge Barbara Waxman, who routinely used to see him in action as an assistant state's attorney, said yesterday. "I've never met anyone more dedicated or conscientious or caring. He's an unbelievable person. And he never suffered the burnout that so many [in the criminal justice system] seem to suffer."

The endless legions of people who have lost their way get to the best of them: the promising ones caught in the web of drug abuse who can't get out; the husbands and wives who take out life's frustrations on each other; the daily barrage of the defeated and the disappointed, the immoral and the amoral.

"Look at this," Ciotola said yesterday, running his fingers across statistics on a page. The numbers told the list of cases that had come through the city's district courts in the first three months of 1990.

There were 18,959 of them.

What happens in the face of this is a kind of branch office of classic justice. The courts back up, and so defendants are urged to make deals. The jails become overcrowded, and so the guilty are given slaps on the wrist. There's no place to put them. Everybody gets a little jaundiced. Judges have to hold their ground. They've got to put aside their emotions and keep everyone's wits about them.

"You come in each morning," Ciotola said yesterday, "and you try to cleanse your mind from the day before. You want to be detached and neutral. I mean, we had one fellow with 50 pages of criminal history, but he's got to get the same fair trial as anybody else, every time he comes in.

"What gets you, though, are all these lives that have gone astray. How does this happen to so many people? I always say, try to walk in their shoes. You see the heartaches and the pain, and you ask, how did they ever reach this state in their lives?"

He handled housing court cases for two years, during which time cases came through the system each year. It's enough to make anyone simply go through the motions after a while, looking for a little daylight. But not Ciotola. He saw these cases as a kind of cornerstone: When things are coming apart in the places where people lay down their heads, someone had better pay serious attention.

Sometimes he'd leave the bench to visit the sites of conflict: public housing projects, rundown apartment buildings. Again, the sense of human beings in trouble loomed larger than any legal statutes.

"All that sadness," he recalled yesterday. "People being evicted, who couldn't pay their rent because they had no income. And all those rental properties that would tear your heart out, the landlords who just didn't care . . ."

Once, when a landlord criticized him for taking minor housing violations too seriously, Ciotola thundered:

"I have to get up and shave this face every day. And when the day

comes that I get up and read the paper and see that someone died in a fire because I didn't enforce compliance on a landlord . . . well, I'll never shave this face again."

Off the bench, Ciotola's known as a softy. He's a grandfather who indulges his grandchildren and a gardener who gives away his prize stuff to friends.

One year, he built a 64-foot model railroad, with three different trains running along tracks that swirled on different levels. He built it for kids at Kernan's Hospital, so they'd have a touch of Christmas the hospital couldn't bring them.

"Now," he says, "I guess I'll take it easy. But it's not easy to unwind, when you've got a working habit." He'll sit in for judges who vacation or fall ill. Mostly, though, he'll tend to his garden and his grandchildren.

And hope that those who follow him will bring to the job his energy, his discipline, his insights, and his sense of humanity.

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