Judge deals out justice with a swift, sure hand At District Court, he hears it all

June 02, 1993|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer NTC

The judge scans the computer monitor next to his chair, then looks down at the defendant.

"Your driving record goes on like 'War and Peace,' " he says. He listens to a long list of excuses from the 40-year-old man, who had failed to show up for a previous hearing on a speeding charge. The judge stops him.

"I don't buy your stories," he says. "Sixty days suspended and a $500 fine. Just imagine me in the back seat of your car -- another ticket and you go to jail."

So it goes in the sparsely decorated Essex District courtroom of Judge G. Darrell Russell Jr. -- an unending stream of sad and oft-told tales heard in a chamber he calls the "temple of democracy."

"For most of the people who come here, it's a one-time thing, and I want them to leave feeling they've been treated fairly," Judge Russell says. "But repeat offenders are going to get more than a slap on the wrist."

Darrell Russell is one of 12 judges -- appointed by the state to 10-year terms at $82,300 a year -- who rotate through Baltimore County's five district courts every six months. District courts handle criminal cases with penalties of less than three years and a $2,500 fine, and civil cases involving sums of $20,000 or less.

District courts are a major operation. The 97 judges in 35 district courts statewide assessed more than $68 million in fines, fees and court costs in the fiscal year that ended last June 30, according to Chief Judge Robert F. Sweeney. The five district courts in Baltimore County alone assessed nearly $8.5 million in fines, fees and costs.

The bad news is that it costs the state about $65 million a year to operate the District Court system and pay its 1,100 employees.

The burden the courts carry is staggering. More than 2 million cases -- about half of them motor vehicle violations -- were filed in the last fiscal year, and more than a half-million actually went to trial.

Cutting deals

To move the docket along, Judge Russell sometimes takes a shortcut.

"If you want to plead guilty," he tells one defendant who is in court for driving on a revoked license, "this is what I'm going to do. . ."

The relieved defendant promptly pleads guilty and gets a $200 fine and a suspended sentence.

To a big, slope-shouldered young man charged with driving with an open container of beer in his car, Judge Russell says, "If you can get back here by 4 o'clock with $100, this case is history."

"I don't have it, your honor, I've been laid off," the defendant replies.

"OK," the judge says, "10 hours of service around the courthouse."

"The courthouse people like that," the judge says later. "Money is so short they don't have enough help."

"Most of the people who come in here are basically decent," he says later. "They made a bad decision, or fell to peer pressure and made a mistake."

'Life is simpler'

Judge Russell, 51, was born in Annapolis and grew up in Govans. He went to Loyola High School and Loyola College, got his law degree from the University of Baltimore and a master's in liberal education from Towson State University. He worked in the Maryland attorney general's office, the Baltimore County public defender's staff, and as a private practitioner before his appointment to the bench in 1990.

Judge Russell calls himself "a product of the Kennedy era" who )) saw the law as a way to "make things happen." He joined the Young Democrats, marched in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in the '60s, and was a two-time loser in politics, failing in bids for County Council and state's attorney.

"I'm still amazed after 2 1/2 years that I'm in this job, which most lawyers would kill for," he says. "The hours are stable, the salary is good, life is simpler. The last time I saw Governor Schaefer, I thanked him for appointing me."

Not that his life is simple. He shares household duties at his home in Wiltondale with his wife, Kathleen, a lawyer with Alex. Brown Realty. They have two boys and two girls between the ages of 6 years and 7 months. He is also general manager of the Baltimore Thunder of the Indoor Lacrosse League at about $5,000 a year.

"I actually do that because I love sports and want to stay close to it," the judge says.

He used to jog 40 to 75 miles and swim "several thousand meters" a week. The regimen has slowed with age. "Now I cycle a lot," he says.

Like most District Court judges, he considers the defendants in front of him with some care. He usually asks about their family background and questions them about their jobs. He sometimes orders dropouts to work on a high school equivalency as part of their probation.

'Quick and relaxed'

A 25-year-old man -- speaking in a heavy accent -- is up for driving on a suspended license.

"Where are you from?" the judge asks.

"Guatemala."

"How are things in Guatemala?"

"Pretty rough, your honor."

"Are you employed? You have children?"

"Yes, sir. I work for a cement company. I have three children."

"Well, I've had four in seven years, and I'm 51," the judge says. "One more and I'm going to Sheppard Pratt."

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