Jurist oversight bill OK'd

April 07, 1995|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

Reacting to controversial decisions by two Baltimore County judges, the General Assembly has given voters a chance to increase the public's voice in disciplining state jurists.

The Maryland Senate gave final approval yesterday to a state constitutional amendment that would alter the makeup of the Commission on Judicial Disabilities, the seven-member panel that investigates complaints against judges.

The commission would be expanded to 11 members, and judges would no longer dominate. Instead of the current composition -- four judges, two lawyers and one lay person -- the commission would have three judges, three lawyers and five members of the general public.

The legislation, which required a three-fifths vote, was passed unanimously by the Senate. It was endorsed last month by the House of Delegates on a 130-2 vote. To become law, it now requires approval from a majority of voters in the November 1996 general election.

Critics of the current commission claimed that it was slow, secretive, and too reluctant to punish judicial misconduct. The criticism intensified dramatically after two memorable incidents involving Baltimore County circuit judges.

Two years ago, Judge Thomas J. Bollinger made sympathetic comments, then gave probation before judgment to a 44-year-old man who raped an intoxicated 18-year-old employee. Last October, Judge Robert E. Cahill suggested that the law was too strict when he gave a truck driver 18 months on work release for killing his unfaithful wife.

Judge Bollinger was given a private reprimand by the commission last year, a fact that became public only because the judge chose to make it so. Complaints filed against Judge Cahill are still pending before the panel.

Some lawmakers had wanted to go a step further and set the rules by which the commission operates, but they were mollified in February when a committee of the state's judges voluntarily stepped forward with reform measures.

The revised regulations are likely to be approved this month by the Court of Appeals and go into effect by July 1. Those regulations would give the commission its own investigator, set time limits for deciding cases, and make proceedings public once charges are pursued.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and one of the commission's most vocal critics, said she and other legislators are satisfied that the commission's problems have been solved by the simultaneous actions of the legislature and the judiciary.

"We're very happy all the way around," Senator Hollinger said.

The Senate had initially pushed to give the commission the power to set punishment, but ultimately agreed to maintain its current authority to make recommendations to the Court of Appeals.

Judges and lawyers had wanted less public representation on the panel, but have chosen to accept the legislative compromise as well. "It was not our call, and we can deal with this very happily," said Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Court of Appeals.

Court of Special Appeals Chief Judge Alan M. Wilner said judges were initially concerned that an overreaction to "isolated cases" would scuttle the current commission.

Most are satisfied now, he said, that the commission will be improved, not abandoned.

"I can't tell you there aren't some disgruntled judges out there, but they understand the new system is not going to hurt them," Judge Wilner said.

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