Jurists get tips to fix an image problem Seminar suggests ways to regain the public's trust

February 04, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

They came to hear a message foreign to many of those who wear black robes and sit in judgment: Jurist, sell thyself.

About 40 Maryland judges gathered in Baltimore's Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse yesterday to hear how to fight public distrust of the nation's courts and legislatures that increasingly want to take away their discretion in sentencing.

The program, sponsored by the Judicial Administration Division of the American Bar Association, featured three hours of judges from Rhode Island, North Carolina and Washington state urging Maryland judges to blow the whistle on unprofessional colleagues, write news releases to promote court initiatives and take other steps to restore their collective good name.

"When we think we're performing well, the perception of the court users is that we're not doing as well as we should and as well as we must," said Rhode Island District Judge Robert K. Pirraglia, one of the three presenters.

Maryland judges have had their share of problems.

In Baltimore County, Circuit Judges Robert E. Cahill Sr. and Thomas J. Bollinger have come under fire for making comments during sentencing that appeared to make light of violence against women, implying that the victims' actions contributed to the crimes against them.

In October, Baltimore Circuit Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe became the first sitting Maryland Circuit Court judge in memory to be turned down for reappointment by a nominating commission, reportedly in part because she made comments from the bench that caused several convictions to be overturned.

Montgomery County District Judge Henry J. Monahan recently was reprimanded for refusing to evacuate his courtroom during a fire, and he awaits the outcome of charges that he had sex with a prostitute in his chambers.

At the seminar, there was nervous laughter when Judge Pirraglia asked whether there had ever been a judge in Maryland who "said something so stupid that it makes the newspapers?"

Shortly before that, he pointed to Baltimore County Circuit Judge Alfred L. Brennan Sr. -- who sits on the same bench as Judges Bollinger and Cahill -- and asked whether every Maryland judge performed his job as efficiently, expeditiously and courteously as possible.

"In my perception?" Judge Brennan replied. "I'm sure not."

During a break later, Judge Brennan declined to comment on the actions of his fellow county jurists. But he did say it is increasingly difficult for judges to speak freely on the bench. For example, he asked, should a judge in an assault case stemming from a fight -- in which the victim had been as much to blame for the fight as the person convicted -- be able to point out publicly that the victim had a role in what happened?

"I tell you right now, I wouldn't, under today's atmosphere," he said. "You leave the victim alone, because today the victim can do no wrong."

Judges also said media skew public perception of what goes on in courts by concentrating only on the most sensational cases, not on day-to-day court work.

"You take the most controversial case on any given day, and you think about how many other judges were on the bench across the state at that moment -- divorcing people, sentencing people -- that it's almost a miracle there aren't more complaints," said Court of Special Appeals Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr.

Gerard F. Devlin, a district judge in Prince George's County, said growing caseloads around the state force judges to move faster, giving them less time to deliberate over how they say things. "There's no such thing as a bad hair day," he said, noting that he believes the vast majority of Maryland judges do a good job.

"We should work on being fair, and the perception will take care of itself," said Baltimore Circuit Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson. He said judges should spend less time worrying about what people think of them and more time just doing better.

Adam C. Grant Jr., a North Carolina district judge and one of the three presenters, said that, on the contrary, judges have to work to get people to notice the good they do. He recommended setting up programs to teach senior citizens, students and clergy about the courts.

Judge Thomas C. Warren, presiding district judge in Chelan County, Wash., said he sends a news release about something happening in his court once a month and runs a "juror-recognition" program by sending personalized certificates to jurors in cases before him. He noted that the lists of jurors would come in handy for campaign purposes if he ever had an election opponent -- "because they'll know that I'm a good judge."

By the end of the morning, most judges in attendance said they had learned a lot, though few seemed ready to launch a full-scale promotional campaign.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Ellen M. Heller said she found the program an effective reminder "of how important it is to be sensitive to what the public thinks."

Judge Cahill did not sign up for the seminar. Judges Bollinger and Monahan signed up but were among 40 or so judges who didn't make it -- perhaps because of the weather.

"I'm just getting out of the driveway now," Judge Bollinger said when called several hours after the seminar ended.

"I would have been there if I could have," he said.

"I haven't the faintest idea what the program was going to be about. I just thought anything along those lines, with judge-bashing so in vogue, I was willing to listen to anything."

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