The new judge isn't worthy of his robes

DAN RODRICKS

February 13, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

That day in Baltimore's Southern District Court was memorable for the number of domestic violence cases. The judge had his hands full, wading through the dreary details of husbands and boyfriends who had assaulted wives and girlfriends. There were at least five such cases in a row.

Three of them ended quickly, each victim deciding to drop charges against her attacker. Two of the cases required the judge to listen to testimony and render a verdict, then pass sentence.

Nothing uncommon. I've seen dozens of depressing "domestics" over the years in District Court, the place where judicial triage is performed hundreds of times daily. The room usually becomes very quiet, and spectators who normally gawk and strain to listen look away or down at their hands.

The judge, however, has to look. He has to listen. It's up to him to decide how to handle these emotionally charged cases. The )) job is difficult. It requires knowledge of the law, an ear for lies, the ability to be objective, compassion and the willingness to consider all. The public has to believe in him.

That's why John Arnick should not be a judge of the District Court.

He gave himself away as unable to do the job. His obscene statements to two female lobbyists in Annapolis last year, in which he made vulgar generalizations about women who claim to have been battered, taint the robe he was so anxious to wear. After hearing what Arnick said, what woman would be comfortable standing before him?

"I wouldn't," said an accountant named Nancy who went to District Court in Towson the other day, where Arnick was presiding, to get an order to keep her estranged husband from harassing her.

Of course, the governor of Maryland, who appointed Arnick, thinks it's "silly" that a woman would feel that way. (Say one thing for the governor -- he knows the meaning of "silly.")

Members of the Maryland Senate who think Arnick's obscene characterization of women was just an "indiscretion" or a "misinterpretation" prove what too many Marylanders too easily believe: The General Assembly is a great frat house, overstocked with spineless pols more concerned with protecting their pals and their special interests than the public interest.

"Rule No. 1 on judicial disabilities," a Baltimore attorney said yesterday. "If a judicial nominee has a personality problem, those problems blossom when he goes on the bench. They get tremendous power, there's no one around to check them, they are surrounded by staff and sycophants." And, he added, the personality problem, whatever it is, goes from something subtle "to something blatant to something patent."

And it diminishes the judge's ability to be impartial.

There are so many good judges in Maryland -- men and a growing number of women who wanted to become judges because they believed in serving the system of justice in a democratic society. "Good people must come forward," said an attorney from Baltimore County. "We need good people to be judges, we need the best of us."

What we don't need is a man, like Arnick, who sees a judgeship as a payoff, a reward for a long career in politics.

Take heart, folks. There are fortunately few men and women in the District Court of Maryland who became judges because, like Arnick, they grew tired of Annapolis and wanted an $82,300-a-year job with a 10-year term. Most of the resumes reflect service as prosecutors, assistant attorneys general, public defenders, criminal defense attorneys, administrative lawyers, municipal counsels and college professors.

"The District Court has become a more formal place," said an attorney. "The IQ of judges has gone up. It's not a little toilet anymore, not a place of good ole boys and schmoozing with the judge."

Politics is undoubtedly an ingredient to most judicial appointments, but of the 93 District Court judges across Maryland, only a few went directly from State House to courthouse.

John Coolahan was one, a state senator from Baltimore County before Schaefer named him to the District Court in 1989. It surprised a lot of people because Coolahan had been a thorn in Schaefer's finger. Coolahan used to call him "Don the Con" and he likened Schaefer's City Hall to the Kremlin.

When Schaefer, as governor, named Coolahan to the bench, some saw it as the governor's way of getting rid of a legislative antagonist. But Schaefer denied that was his aim. He believed Coolahan would make a good judge. "Don't play games with me on judges," Schaefer said. "This is my responsibility."

Yeah, but so is John Arnick.

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