Judging the McLean Case

June 15, 1994

Whatever their motivations may have been, the intercession of a handful of City Council members and the postponement of Comptroller Jacqueline McLean's trial by one judge over another's objections stains the Baltimore judiciary's reputation for integrity. However distressing some of the events in the court room, they pale in contrast to the spectacle of behind-the-scenes maneuvering elsewhere in the court house.

The constitutional guarantee of a fair trial requires that the judicial system be insulated from outside interference. That means politicians should not meddle in trials and that judges should not deal with anyone but the parties and attorneys directly involved. Both of these fundamental precepts were violated by the council members who conferred with Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan and by him in meeting with them, as he now acknowledges.

Judge Kaplan compounded his error by overruling the trial judge, Elsbeth L. Bothe, in what was technically a legally justifiable action but was cloaked in the appearance of subterfuge. This was an action that cried out for full public scrutiny, but which was conducted largely in private.

Ms. McLean's trial on corruption charges has become a cause celebre in much of Baltimore. It's not just that one of the three highest elected officials in the city has been indicted. Her medical condition has been a complicating factor in the case, as have been the sharp exchanges between her attorneys and Judge Bothe. Many in the city have passionately taken sides, some believing she is a sick woman being harassed and others that she is receiving special consideration that would not be given an ordinary citizen in similar straits.

All the more reason, then, for everyone involved to take special care that her trial be conducted with the strictest probity -- and conspicuously so. It is hard to conceive of circumstances in which it would have been appropriate for Judge Kaplan, the Circuit Court's administrative judge, to confer with one or more council members regarding a pending case. In this instance it was totally inappropriate. It's not just that the officials had no standing to meddle. They are politicians who have some power over the court's budget and can influence the outcome of Judge Kaplan's re-election campaign this year. Council President Mary Pat Clarke did the right thing in asking them to explain their action. It was totally out of bounds.

Against that background, making the decision to postpone the trial behind closed doors -- routine procedure in routine cases -- gave further appearance of polluting the process. Ms. McLean is entitled to a fair trial, and the public is entitled to seeing for itself that it is fair.


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