Judges' pay raises threatened Legislators cite Bollinger's action

February 08, 1997|By Michael Dresser and Joan Jacobson | Michael Dresser and Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore County judge's decision to expunge the conviction of a businessman who brutally beat his estranged wife could end up costing the state's entire judiciary a pay raise, some prominent women legislators warned yesterday.

Del. Joan B. Pitkin, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said the action by Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. "throws a real monkey wrench" into an effort to raise judges' pay by $9,000 a year.

"We have to send a message, and this is one way," said Pitkin, a Prince George's County Democrat.

The threat to the judges' raise came as outrage continued to mount over the Bollinger decision.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and many male legislators joined female lawmakers in denouncing the action, while the phone line at the state's Commission on Judicial Disabilities was tied up much of the morning.

"It is a terrible statement about a lack of seriousness on domestic violence and violence against women in our society," Glendening said in an interview.

On Jan. 31, Bollinger changed the 1995 battery conviction of Charles H. Weiner, 50, a Baltimore pawnshop owner and precious metals dealer, to probation before judgment. At the same time, the judge extended Weiner's unsupervised probation from three years to five years.

The judge said he acted to "remove a stigma" after Weiner's lawyer told him, among other things, that the conviction might have doomed his client's application to join Chestnut Ridge Country Club in Lutherville.

Although Weiner's lawyer talked generally about the embarrassment of a criminal record, the country club was the only specific example he gave in his courtroom statements to the judge and in a subsequent interview.

Yesterday, Weiner, speaking publicly on the matter for the first -- time, said he regrets losing his temper with his then-estranged wife. But he added that he wanted the conviction expunged "to go on with my life as I had for the first 50 years with no criminal record."

Bollinger has refused to discuss the decision.

Yesterday, however, dozens of members of the General Assembly's women's caucus held a news conference on the State House steps to insist Weiner's stigma was well-deserved.

Joined by male colleagues ranging from conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats, the Women Legislators of Maryland said they would file a formal complaint Monday against Bollinger with the Commission on Judicial Disabilities, which reprimanded the judge once before because of his comments in a rape case.

The commission has the power to recommend disciplinary action, including reprimand, censure, forced retirement or removal. The final decision would be made by the Court of Appeals.

Townsend, in a letter to women legislators, said she expects the judicial disabilities agency to take "appropriate action" against Bollinger. "If there is any crime that deserves -- even demands -- public scorn and personal stigma, surely it is the crime of domestic violence," she said.

It is doubtful, however, whether the current case will result in the removal of Bollinger, 55, who was appointed to a 15-year term on the bench in 1990 by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Jack Schwartz, chief counsel in the attorney general's office, said a judge's decision in a particular court case does not amount to punishable conduct. Even if Bollinger's actions were found to be part of a pattern of misconduct, judges have historically been removed from the bench only for criminal actions.

Women's caucus members said they would not be satisfied with another reprimand.

"As a Baltimore County senator, it's my position he should be removed," said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-10.

Said Del. Jean B. Cryor, a Montgomery County Republican: "I think he should resign and that if he does not, someone should ask him to leave."

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell said yesterday that he has agreed to meet with the 56-member Women Legislators of Maryland, who had requested such a meeting Thursday after The Sun reported Bollinger's action.

Many of those legislators were not shy yesterday about linking the issue of Bollinger's conduct with the proposed judicial pay raise, which the chief judge has strongly supported.

Some said the threat to the judicial raise is a serious effort to motivate Bollinger's colleagues in what Pitkin called "the fraternity" to join their calls for the judge's resignation.

Legislators said they felt justified in linking pay with the issue of conduct because the problem of judicial insensitivity on women's issues does not just involve Bollinger.

Weiner was convicted of battery after a December 1994 incident which he beat his then-estranged wife in the foyer of their Owings Mills home. According to a police report and trial testimony, Weiner beat his wife's head against the tile floor, injuring her head, ear and eye.

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