Judges Just Don't Get It

November 20, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

Maybe it was last month's backlash that greeted Judge Robert Cahill's light sentence and sympathetic remarks for a man who killed his wife. Maybe it was this month's roar from voters disgusted with the status quo.

Whatever the reason, this past week Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Thomas J. Bollinger voluntarily released the ''private reprimand'' handed to him by the state's Commission on Judicial Disabilities.

Sorry, but if the commission thinks this tap on the wrist will restore the public's faith in Judge Bollinger's approach to rape cases, their long months of deliberation have been in vain.

With the ''reprimand'' coming 17 months after the case in question, readers can be forgiven if they're now hazy on the details of this affair.

Unlike Judge Cahill's famous case, in which a Parkton truck driver was distraught about the lovers' quarrel that turned him from a wronged husband into a killer, the defendant in the Bollinger case was unrepentant, even after a jury had convicted him of second-degree rape.

Judge Bollinger worried that the young woman had ''facilitated'' the rape, although in fact Lawrence Gillette had ''facilitated'' the intoxication of an underage drinker. After she passed out, she awakened briefly to find herself naked in his bed, with him on top of her. Gillette maintained she had asked for it.

And unlike Judge Cahill, who at least had the good sense to shut up when an outcry greeted the 18-month work-release sentence he imposed on Kenneth Peacock, Judge Bollinger compounded his courtroom behavior by quarreling with state law, explaining later to reporters that a 44-year-old man who takes advantage of an 18-year-old intoxicated woman should be charged with a misdemeanor, not a felony.

As Baltimore Sun reporters Sheridan Lyons and Larry Carson reported on April 24, 1993, Judge Bollinger said: ''What this man did, the law equates with having sexual relations with a retarded woman. To me, that's not the same as having sexual relations with a friend who you know who's in your bed who became intoxicated voluntarily.''

That's not the way the victim saw it, nor did Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. agree. He chaired the Senate committee that rewrote Maryland's rape laws in the mid-1970s, and he made it clear during the Bollinger flap that the legislature did indeed regard such conduct as reprehensible -- as second-degree rape punishable with a 20-year maximum sentence.

Neither is Judge Bollinger's view shared by anybody else sympathetic to the trauma caused by such an assault on body and soul.

What people do see, ever more clearly, is that Marylanders have precious little recourse when judges ''just don't get it.'' For that matter, they have little recourse when judges are senile or drunkards or simply unable to behave themselves on the bench in a judicial manner.

Maryland has its share of superb and diligent jurists, but in some Maryland courtrooms the respect rightly accorded to judges is taken as a license for petulant, abusive behavior. What happens when a judge, the rightful repository of civic respect for law and order, acts instead like a terrible-tempered 2-year-old? In Maryland, not much.

The mechanism for judicial accountability rests in the Commission on Judicial Disabilities, an entity composed of appointed volunteers with a bare-bones budget and, apparently, little or no backbone.

Many observers of Maryland's court system whisper that, had the Cahill scandal not become national news, the Bollinger affair might never have surfaced from the ''black hole'' that most judicial complaints seem to enter once they're forwarded to the commission.

Well, this time something did emerge from the black hole, although it falls short of a satisfactory response. Remember, Judge Bollinger compounded his offensive remarks by agreeing to participate in a nine-week training session on the effects of rape, then refusing to attend.

Judge Bollinger told reporters he mulled over the sentence for 2 1/2 months, worrying, he said, about changes in social mores. One of those changes is that violence against women is taken more seriously.

By refusing an opportunity to learn why these changes matter, why a rape can ruin a life, Judge Bollinger in effect signaled that judges can make their own rules and thumb their noses at public opinion. Now, the ''reprimand'' shows that such behavior will get scarcely a discouraging word from the Commission on Judicial Disabilities.

The commission is following the rules, which provide for it to operate in private to protect judges from frivolous complaints. Those rules need a thorough re-examination. Accountability is the cornerstone of respect. As things stand now, accountability for Maryland judges is in dangerously short supply.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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