Baltimore Judges Can Handle This

August 20, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

Special prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli has asked Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan of the Baltimore Circuit Court to allow an outside judge to preside over the trial of former city comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean.

I hope Judge Kaplan denies the request. There is no reason Ms. McLean can't get a fair trial in Baltimore City. To accede to Mr. Montanarelli's demand would be to impugn the integrity of every city judge and the Baltimore court system.

Mr. Montanarelli says that an appearance of political influence has tainted the court proceedings in Ms. McLean's theft and misconduct case.

As evidence, he cited a June 10 meeting between several City Council members and Judge Kaplan and Judge Joseph P. McCurdy Jr., the judge in charge of the criminal docket. Mr. Montanarelli said the meeting had "seriously and irreparably damaged the court's ability to deal fairly and impartially" with the case.

I do not believe for a moment that the five council members who met with the judges did so with the intent of improperly influencing the outcome of Ms. McLean's trial.

I take them at their word that they were concerned by the circus atmosphere surrounding the proceedings and wished to express their misgivings to Judge Kaplan because he was the court's chief administrative officer.

I shared their concern. The spectacle unfolding in the McLean hearings was shameful. Ms. McLean clearly was not a well

woman. The legal question of whether she was mentally competent to stand trial was certainly problematic. But the entire proceeding exuded an odor of haste and hysteria that threatened to do far more damage to the credibility of the criminal justice system than anything the council members might have done.

A person who holds a position of public trust must not only avoid doing anything wrong but also the appearance of impropriety. That, however, is no license to smear a reputation regardless of the facts.

nTC The fact is, Judge Kaplan was not the trial judge. He was not in a position to influence the conduct of the trial or its outcome in any way. Neither was Judge McCurdy. By the time the council members met in Judge Kaplan's office, Ms. McLean had already been committed to a state mental hospital.

Both men later said they regretted having participated in the meeting because it might appear the council members attempted to influence them improperly.

But there could be no appearance of impropriety if neither judge was in a position to influence the proceedings -- which they clearly were not. Only the trial judge assigned to the case could do that.

This is a distinction that seems to have eluded critics of the two judges who met with the council members. Yet it is a crucial point.

If the council members had attempted to meet with Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe, the trial judge assigned to the McLean case, clearly they would be open to a charge of having tried to taint the process.

Even if they did not directly ask the trial judge to do anything improper, their very presence could be construed as an attempt to influence the conduct or outcome of the proceedings, which is strictly forbidden. But that is not what happened.

I cannot imagine any of the council members ever being so foolish as to try to confront Judge Bothe. Nor can I imagine that she would ever consent to such a meeting.

Yet the tenor of much of the criticism suggested not only that the council members may have tried to improperly influence the proceedings but also that they were in a position to do so. The facts simply do not support this view.

I do not buy the idea that Judge Kaplan may have felt compelled to acquiesce in the council members' request for a meeting in order to curry political favor for his re-election campaign this year. As the court's chief administrative officer he meets regularly with all kinds of people to discuss their questions and complaints. That is part of his job.

Nor do I think it crossed any of the council members' minds that the judge might be intimidated by the fact the council must approve the court's operating budget. The notion that they intended to convey some sort of veiled threat of retribution is really a stretch.

Mr. Montanarelli knows all this very well. It is he, not the judges or council members, who is seeking to politicize this case by impugning the integrity of the city courts and judges. I would hate to see Judge Kaplan let him get away with it. Ms. McLean can get a fair trial in a Baltimore court before a Baltimore judge. No outsiders need apply.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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