The McLean case

June 15, 1994

The Jacqueline McLean case has claimed its first victim: the Baltimore courts' reputation for integrity. The circumstances surrounding the postponement of the city comptroller's trial on corruption charges are not entirely clear; the participants don't agree on what happened. But it is clear that both Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the city's Circuit Court, and several members of the City Council seriously overstepped the bounds of judicial propriety.

Few things are more fundamental to our system of justice than that it be even-handed, free of outside pressure and conducted in the open. Citizens are sharply divided whether the courts' treatment of Ms. McLean's case has been even-handed. Some believe she is a sick woman being harassed; others believe the case is a political hot-potato that is getting special treatment. In those circumstances there was more need than usual that extreme care be taken not to have even the appearance of political shenanigans or back-room maneuvering. Judge Kaplan and the council members who met with him Friday failed miserably on that count.

For city council members -- how many is still in dispute -- to intervene in a criminal case before the courts is unconscionable. The courts must be insulated from any sort of political interference, apparent or real. Whatever else they thought, the council members could not possibly have considered themselves ordinary citizens petitioning for justice. They were politicians meddling where they had no business getting involved.

For Judge Kaplan to have met with the council members was at the very least a serious error in judgment, as he now acknowledges. The fact that the City Council has the power to cut his court's budget and that Judge Kaplan is up for re-election this year may not have entered his mind at the time -- but it should have. And should have convinced him not to meet privately with even a single member of the council.

The McLean case has been troublesome for weeks. Ms. McLean's fragile health, coupled with the sharp exchanges between her attorneys and the trial judge, Elsbeth L. Bothe, have upset the decorum vital to the judicial process. The charges against one of the city's highest elected officials are very serious and must be dealt with expeditiously. Verbal fireworks and other spectacles in the court room distract both the court and the public from the facts of the case. This is a case involving charges of official corruption. The facts are all that matter in a trial. A decision whether those facts call for justice tempered with mercy follows, not precedes, a verdict. Just about everyone involved in the McLean case needs to be reminded of that.

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