Judging those who judge us

October 27, 1994|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Sun Staff Writer

Women's groups here and across the county were galvanized last week when a Baltimore County Judge sentenced a Parkton trucker to 18 months on work release for killing his wife after he found her in bed with another man.

But lawyers involved in domestic cases and advocates for women's causes say the case is symptomatic of a Baltimore County bench that is overwhelming male, white, middle-aged and often insensitive to women's issues.

"Many of these judges are of the age that they've never gotten it. They don't have the willingness to learn, to be sensitized and aware of the issue of victimization," said Carole J. Alexander, executive director of the House of Ruth, a Baltimore shelter for battered women.

On issues ranging from child support to wife-beating, rape and even murder, critics say, the Baltimore County courthouse is viewed as a hostile environment for women. Others say the controversy illustrates the need for a more balanced judiciary.

"There needs to be more diversity on the bench, more women and more blacks," said Joan H. Sills, an attorney with a family practice who unsuccessfully sought a seat on the county's 13-member judicial nominating commission several years ago.

Still others, including Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor, suggested establishment of "court-watch" programs for domestic cases similar to those set up by groups who want tougher drunken driving sentences.

Several judges interviewed by The Sun denied that the county bench was either hostile to women or a monolith that could be characterized in any one way. "I guess the thing I get the most upset about is that if there's an alleged faux pas by one member, it is extended to all," said Judge Barbara Kerr Howe, the only woman on the 15-member circuit bench. "It's not fair: You have to judge each of us as individuals."

"Among judges on this bench, there is a perception that one judge may be weak in a particular area of the law," she added, "but each of us has taken an oath, and each of us is qualified by law to handle any kind of case that comes before us."

The issue arose last week after the sentencing of Kenneth

Peacock, a 36-year-old trucker who killed his wife, Sandra, in a drunken rage last Feb. 9 at least two hours after finding her in bed with a man she had picked up in a bar.

Critics were outraged because Judge Robert E. Cahill Sr. told the defendant that while he couldn't condone the killing, he understood the rage that led to it. Others criticized the state's attorney's office for accepting a plea of voluntary manslaughter instead of trying Peacock for murder and letting a jury decide the issue.

The Peacock case is not alone in bringing the Baltimore County bench under scrutiny recently. Last year, Judge Thomas J. Bollinger's sympathetic comments to a 44-year-old man convicted of raping an 18-year-woman who had passed out drunk in his home raised many of the same outcries.

"When is somebody in some position of authority going to come out and say, 'No, this is not the position of the judicial system in Baltimore County . . . this is an abnormality?" said Barbara B. Barker, legal coordinator for the county's Sexual Assault and Domestic violence center.

Women's groups aren't the only ones critical of the bench. In an office that has an overall reputation for being tough on domestic cases, many county prosecutors say privately that only a handful of judges -- including Judge Howe -- can be counted on to take domestic violence seriously.

In most cases, critics say, the pattern shows up in cases that never make the news.

"We have experienced victim-blaming, many statements being made from the bench that suggest the judicial understanding of domestic violence is, at best, to see it as a common but not as a particularly serious crime," said Ms. Alexander of the House of Ruth.

She said women seeking protective orders have been told, for example, that they aren't "scared enough" or that the violence "appears to be the natural product of a 20-year marriage."

Tricia O'Neill, vice president of the 1,200-member Women's Bar Association of Maryland, said her group and others will set up a special committee to hear complaints about Baltimore County judges.

"Certainly, given the perception of bias and the old-boy network at work, we want to be open to receiving any comments wherever lawyers or litigants perceive bias in the courts," she said.

But she, like other attorneys, said getting lawyers to complain on the record about judges before whom they practice is difficult.

"I have talked to attorneys who have concerns about matters that have been handled in Baltimore County Circuit Court, but they fear their names going public and they fear adverse consequences for themselves, and more importantly for their clients," she said.

Judge Edward A. DeWaters Jr., administrative judge for the Third Circuit, said domestic cases -- whether they involve violence or child support issues -- are the most difficult for judges to deal with.

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