McLean lawyer, Judge Bothe were allies in '80 election

June 13, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

The way they bickered last week over the case of Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean, you never would have guessed that lawyer William H. Murphy Jr. and Baltimore Circuit Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe were once political allies.

Judge Bothe acknowledges she probably owes her job to Mr. Murphy, who endorsed her struggling campaign days before the 1980 election in which she won a 15-year term on the bench.

"Billy was unquestionably a big help. I've never denied that," she said last week. "Maybe he wouldn't be facing me now if he hadn't helped me."

To which Mr. Murphy said yesterday, "No good deed goes unpunished."

The relationship between the two -- never close, even when they were politically aligned -- seems especially tense after the verbal sparring last week when Mrs. McLean's trial on theft and official misconduct charges was postponed.

The judge and the lawyer threw barbs at each other in the courtroom last week, with Mr. Murphy accusing Judge Bothe of being unfit to try the case because of a history of improperly injecting herself into trials. In return, Judge Bothe accused Mr. Murphy of trying to manipulate her with ploys such as asking for 10-minute breaks that would inevitably stretch into half an hour or more.

The courtroom fireworks were cited by Joseph H. H. Kaplan, the city's administrative judge, in explaining why he urged a postponement in the McLean trial after an extraordinary meeting with five members of the Baltimore City Council. The "back and forth," said the judge, "doesn't look good."

Even in 1980, when both were candidates for seats on the Circuit Court bench, the relationship between Judge Bothe and Mr. Murphy was uneasy, the lawyer recalled.

Judge Bothe, a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, had been appointed to the bench two years earlier and was running for a full term. Mr. Murphy, one of two outsiders challenging the five incumbents, was running on the proposition that blacks were underrepresented on the bench.

Judge Bothe lost in the Democratic primary and squeaked by in the Republican race. (Judges run as nonpartisan candidates in both primaries.) Seemingly vulnerable to defeat as the general election approached, her campaign made a deal with the Murphy camp.

She would shift some of the $2,000 in out-of-state money received through the United Auto Workers, where her husband was an official, to the Murphy campaign to use to print its literature. In return, Mr. Murphy, announced his support for Judge Bothe in a full-page advertisement in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper.

Judge Thomas Ward, the judicial candidate who became the odd man out in that election but gained a seat on the bench two years later, described the significance of Mr. Murphy's endorsement: "It cost me the election."

Mr. Murphy recalled the decision to support Judge Bothe was difficult for him because he was close to Judge Ward. He said he acted at the urging of Arthur Murphy, his campaign manager and brother, who said her civil rights background was a good fit for the ticket.

He said that by the time of the race, he already had become disenchanted with Judge Bothe's style in the courtroom. Last week, in asking Judge Bothe to disqualify herself from the McLean case, Mr. Murphy said he would cite cases that show appellate judges have criticized her for interjecting herself into trials.

"We have warned this trial judge on at least two prior occasions that she should act with restraint during trial to avoid the appearance of prejudice against the accused," one judge wrote in overturning a murder conviction obtained in Judge Bothe's court.

Judge Bothe said, "I interfere, they say, too much. But my interference is more helpful to the defendant than the prosecutor, and nobody knows about that because if it is an acquittal it's not appealed and if it's a conviction and is appealed they won't mention how I helped them."

The judge refused to disqualify herself from the case and she reacted angrily when it was removed from her, at least temporarily, by the postponement.

She said she has no personal animosity toward Mr. Murphy for the battles in the case. "I don't hold any grievances against him for it, [but] I really think this particular client of his could have been better served with a lawyer who tried to work out a decent deal with a judge like me, who is a good plea bargainer."

Now on unpaid leave from city government, Mrs. McLean has been charged with stealing more than $25,000 in public money and trying to arrange a $1 million city lease for the one-time headquarters of a travel agency she owned.

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