THERE are those who consider it mere coincidence that Joh Arnick and Judge Thomas J. Bollinger, both assailed during the past three months for sexually inappropriate comments and actions, come from Baltimore County.
But insiders say it isn't coincidental, that judicial sexism and gender bias in county legal circles extend well beyond the two men, that the county courts' reputation for unfriendliness -- even hostility -- toward women is well deserved.
Baltimore County, they note, was the last metropolitan subdivision to have a woman appointed to the Circuit Court. Judge Barbara Kerr Howe (now the administrative judge) is the only woman among 15 judges in the 3rd Judicial Circuit. (The county's District Court has just two women of 12 judges.) And although perhaps a quarter of the county's lawyers are women, its bar association, unlike the city's, has no committee to deal with sexual bias.
But attitudes count more than numbers, and women lawyers and litigants in Baltimore County can recite a litany of horror stories. Lawyers in divorce cases, they say, routinely advise women clients to settle. If divorce clients have the option of filing in city or county, lawyers usually recommend the city. The reason: When property distribution and custody decisions are made from the county bench, women simply don't get a fair shake.
Moreover, in criminal cases involving domestic violence -- cases that increasingly are heard in Circuit Court rather than District Court -- county lawyers hope to go before Judge Howe rather than her male colleagues.
The extent of sexual bias in county courts is, of course, difficult to judge. Even if they agree with Judge Bollinger, most judges have enough sense not to complain from the bench about sentencing guidelines or to declare, "I don't think the legislature knew what it was doing" when it approved the guidelines. And they know that once their decisions, and especially their comments, are publicly ridiculed, sometimes they need to back off, soften their statements, perhaps even apologize.
What's most disappointing about the Bollinger incident, at least to many lawyers and judges in Maryland, is that it happened after extensive efforts to prevent it. There was even a sense that sexism in Baltimore County courts was on the wane. Six years ago, the bench and bar cooperated in the establishment of a state Gender Bias Commission. A commission report in 1989 led to extensive sensitivity training, much of it aimed at the state's judiciary. And the state's chief judge, Robert Murphy, takes a personal interest in rubbing out judicial sexism.
By law, the state's Commission on Judicial Disabilities must investigate complaints it does not consider "frivolous." In this case, Judge Bollinger gave a man convicted of second-degree rape probation before verdict, declaring from the bench that the crime should be a misdemeanor. Sentencing guidelines, which are ignored by many judges, say the accused in this case should have been given at least four years. Surely this is more than a "frivolous" departure from the guidelines. But what disturbed more than the sentence itself was Judge Bollinger's statement from the bench that a 44-year-old man's finding an 18-year-old woman unconscious in his bed was "the dream of a lot of males."
Surely the commission should investigate -- and make the results of its investigation public. If it refuses to do so, Judge Howe, a member of the Judicial Disabilities Commission, should launch her own investigation.
Meanwhile, she should assign Judge Bollinger to administrative duties. A police officer believed to have used excessive force when making an arrest is assigned office duties pending an internal or grand jury investigation. The same principle applies here.
The county bench and bar also have a big role to play if the problem is to be solved. The legal groups should assemble a high-profile task force -- made up of lawyers, judges and citizens -- to monitor courtrooms, turn up any disturbing events and deal directly with offenders.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer also needs to draw some lessons. A man who's done much for women in Maryland, Mr. Schaefer should now see the need to appoint more women and minorities to the Baltimore County bench. And candidates in next year's state elections shouldn't hesitate to air the issues raised in the Arnick and Bollinger incidents. Not to speak out, not to confront the problem, is to condone sexist behavior.
Bruce L. Bortz, a lawyer and former managing editor of the Daily Record, writes on alternate Thursdays about Maryland politics.