Bollinger: Too Little, Too Late

November 19, 1994

Long before the outraged protests against Judge Robert Cahill's light sentence and sympathetic remarks for a man who killed his wife, another Baltimore County Circuit Court judge ran afoul of public opinion when he gave a wrist-slap (probation before judgment) to an unrepentant rapist, then worried aloud that Maryland law was too strict in such matters. This week, 17 months later, Judge Thomas Bollinger voluntarily released the "private reprimand" he received from the state's Commission on Judicial Disabilities, along with his response.

It was too little, too late. Now, with public anger focused at two judges who appear insensitive to violence against women, the weaknesses in Maryland's system of holding judges accountable for their behavior are glaringly evident.

Maryland is fortunate that the state judiciary has been shielded from the corruption found in states that subject their judges to frequent and expensive election campaigns. But that doesn't justify complacency; there is more to judicial responsibility than simply remaining free of corruption.

The Bollinger and Cahill cases reflect a changing social landscape that recognizes the rights of women as well as the intolerable toll taken by sexual assaults and other such crimes. Yet many members of the Maryland judiciary are out of touch with these realities. Judge Bollinger should have understood that rape is a life-scarring violation -- not, as he suggested in this case, the dream of a lot of males. Judge Cahill had no business noting in his sentencing remarks that a man could be forgiven for imposing "corporal punishment" on a cheating wife -- in this case, death.

Judge Bollinger's decision to make the reprimand public was voluntary. It was also politically necessary, particularly in the aftermath of the Cahill case. Had he decided to exercise his right not to go public, the people who protested this case -- either formally to the disabilities commission or in any other way -- would have had no way of knowing their voices had been heard.

That is not healthy for a democracy. Judges have a right to be protected from frivolous complaints, but the current system bends so far in that direction it provides little satisfaction for citizens justly outraged at judicial behavior.

The Bollinger case was the first of its kind for the Judicial Disabilities Commission; the length of time it took for members to deal with it suggests the panel isn't prepared for these kinds of complaints. It should be. When the overwhelming majority of Maryland judges are white males -- often dealing with caseloads heavy on issues involving domestic and sexual violence -- the problem of insensitive judges becomes a loaded political issue.


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