The launching of a new judge

November 22, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

Flying solo as Baltimore's newest judge for the first time yesterday, the Honorable Jack I. Lesser dispensed traffic-court justice at a pace that only weeks earlier had seemed overwhelming to him.

One man was excused for missing an earlier court hearing -- it clashed with his open-heart surgery, and he had the papers to prove it.

Excuses did not work for a woman caught doing 43 mph in a 25 zone -- blaming her heavy foot on a big shoe did not clear her.

And then came the man charged with taking an undersize rockfish from the harbor's Middle Branch. Not guilty. The charging officer failed to show.

After moving through 68 cases in an hour and a half, Judge Lesser took a break in his chambers and said he was relieved to have handled his first docket.

"My adrenalin was going the whole time I was up there," he said. He didn't sleep well the night before.

A fish case on the Part 3 "nonincarcerable traffic" docket was a surprise, he said, but the real challenge was being fair and fast at the same time. A veteran bailiff told him he did fine.

His orientation program paid off.

For four weeks, Judge Lesser was enrolled in a crash course not found in any law school curriculum. It was a tightly scheduled ori

entation designed to nurture the metamorphosis from advocate to arbiter, from being just another of the state's 24,000 lawyers to joining the guild of those who sit in judgment.

If nothing else, he seems to be getting used to being "Judge Lesser." For a while, the amiable, 39-year-old former assistant state's attorney was so bashful he couldn't stop laughing and wincing in embarrassment every time an old pal addressed him as "Judge."

"I've got to stop doing that," he said the other day.

On some days during his indoctrination, Judge Lesser rode shotgun with seasoned judges, and watched them run their dockets. He picked up some tricks of the trade -- how to fill out the paperwork for one case while hearing the next one; how to keep the bulging dockets moving along. He ruled on a few cases, even took over for one judge one afternoon.

And he got a preview of what his working life will be like in District Court, where the repetition is broken up by the occasional psychotic episode.

For example, while Judge Lesser was sitting with Judge Kathleen M. Sweeney in the Wabash Avenue courthouse, a man in for a bail review suddenly pitched forward and began moaning. Even the other prisoners shied away from the man until Judge Sweeney ordered him taken away for a competency review. "It was wild," Judge Lesser said. "I think it was good for me to see her handle that situation because if I hadn't I don't know what I would have done. Those are the kinds of things people can tell you about but until you see it you're not sure what you'd do."

On other days of his orientation, Judge Lesser hung up his robe, got out of the courtroom and saw how things work on the periphery of the justice system. It meant field trips to the Housing Authority offices, the House of Ruth battered women's shelter and the regional parole headquarters, as well as to the penitentiary and the mental hospital.

On Nov. 1 -- the day a tornado hit East Baltimore -- he draped his suit jacket over his head and muddied his loafers in the rainy exercise yard at the Maryland Penitentiary. He toured the housing tier at Baltimore's fortress-like prison and wondered whether he'd bump into anyone he helped send there during his years as a prosecutor.

"It's important if you're a judge to see where inmates can wind up," he said.

Six days later, he mixed with the patients at a downtown Baltimore mental hospital -- and was touched after hearing a young man tearfully plead: "I need to get out of here. I need to see my family and friends."

In a municipal building conference room lined with maps of the city, he met with the city's director of housing inspections and a housing court prosecutor, who changed his misconception that housing court is only for slumlords. In fact, he was told, the court is used as a last resort for scofflaw property owners large and small.

At the parole office, he learned that the "monitors" for the drunken drivers placed on probation are themselves recovering alcoholics. At the House of Ruth, he got a quick lesson in the psychology of domestic abuse, and an overview of a group-therapy program for court-referred suspects.

The visits to the outside agencies are invaluable for a new judge, said Mary Ellen T. Rinehardt, administrative judge for Baltimore's District Court.

"It's almost like a sampler -- this is what there is," Judge Rinehardt said. "If you see it, feel it, smell it, it's much more graphically ingrained in your mind.

Robert F. Sweeney, chief judge of the state District Court, said all judges should visit a prison because, "It seems to me, if we are to take a human being and consign him to a cage, we ought to at least see that cage."

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