A story about Judge Gerstung, without laughs

DAN RODRICKS

May 06, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Anyone who has done time in the District Courts of Baltimore has a "Gerstung story."

Cops, public defenders, prosecutors, clerks, defense attorneys, habitual defendants, gallery birds and other connoisseurs of judicial theatrics -- at some point over the last 24 years, they've probably seen Judge Robert J. Gerstung hold court.

And so they have probably heard his musings and reasonings, his Mencken-quality wisecracks and sophisticated sarcasm, his quips and pontifications. Gerstung long has been regarded as not only the city's most acerbic judge, but also one of its most intelligent, too. His courtrooms often have exploded in laughter.

So, whenever cops or lawyers -- and certain newspaper columnists -- tell amusing District Court stories, they frequently have one featuring Gerstung. Almost everyone has a "Gerstung story."

Now Donna McKusick has one, too.

But she's not amused.

Back in January, a cop stopped McKusick for speeding on Northern Parkway. Concerned about having a conviction on her driving record, she decided to take her case to Traffic Court. Her court appearance was set for March 16. The presiding judge was Gerstung.

McKusick's was the third case on the docket that day. She decided to plead "guilty with explanation," hoping Gerstung would listen and maybe reduce her penalty.

McKusick told the judge that Monday, Jan. 25, marked her first day back at work since attending her father's funeral in Virginia. McKusick was driving her father's car to work and, as she drove along Northern Parkway, she was clocked doing 47 in a 25 mile-per-hour zone.

"I was racing to work," McKusick said, hearing the poor choice of words as they slipped from her tongue.

"You were racing?" Gerstung asked, and everyone had a good laugh.

Later, the judge asked McKusick some questions. For one thing, he wanted to know where she worked.

After being told McKusick was director of developmental education at Essex Community College, Gerstung asked, "You don't teach driver's ed, do you?"

"No," McKusick said.

"What about sex ed?"

"No," McKusick answered, thinking the question strange, then thinking it humiliating.

In fact, in a letter of complaint to Robert Sweeney, chief judge of the District Court of Maryland, McKusick said Gerstung's question "meets the classic definition of sexual harassment."

Classic?

"I am certain," McKusick wrote Sweeney, "that not only did Judge Gerstung's final question have nothing to do with my speeding violation, but that it was intended to embarrass and humiliate me . . . I also highly doubt whether Judge Gerstung would have asked that question of a man."

Good point -- one that, by yesterday, Gerstung was still trying to get.

Having read McKusick's letter of complaint, he said, "I don't know what her point was." Gerstung added that, while his courtroom query about sex education might have been "misplaced humor," it did not constitute "classic sex harassment."

"It's not a big, big deal," McKusick said yesterday. "But it's a symptom."

Maybe a symptom of a judge who hasn't been paying attention. Did Gerstung miss the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas story? Yoo-hoo. Did you miss the Arnick episode, Your Honor? Perhaps, if Gerstung has been sensitized to women's concerns about the judicial system, his mind hasn't informed his tongue yet.

"If Judge Gerstung 'doesn't get it,' then someone who does should be dealing with this behavior," wrote Nancy Clark, a friend of Donna McKusick, in a letter to Mary Ellen Rinehardt, administrative judge of the District Courts in Baltimore.

Clark accompanied McKusick to court March 16. When the two left Gerstung's courtroom, McKusick said, "I should be feeling good, my fine reduced and no points, but I feel lousy."

A couple of things should make McKusick feel better. Rinehardt responded promptly, expressing "my concerns with the gravity of your complaint," and pledging to listen to the tape of the colloquy.

But the best consolation of all is this: When Gerstung asked his stupid question, no one -- not even those familiar with the judge's style -- laughed. By all accounts, the courtroom fell silent.

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