After days of intense protest from women's groups and legislators, Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. reinstated the conviction of a wife-beater yesterday and disqualified himself from cases involving sexual offenses or domestic violence.
The highly unusual move by Bollinger -- reprimanded in 1994 for insensitive comments in a rape case -- follows withering protests over his Jan. 31 decision to change his battery conviction of Baltimore pawnbroker Charles H. Weiner to probation before judgment.
In seeking to have the sentence changed, Weiner's lawyer had told Bollinger, among other things, that the conviction might have doomed his client's application to join a country club.
But the judge's actions yesterday failed to satisfy legislators who have been calling for his resignation. Members of the General Assembly's women's caucus voted unanimously yesterday to ask the Commission on Judicial Disabilities to open a case against him.
"This is a man who knows he did something wrong and is trying to avoid the disciplinary process," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, informed of Bollinger's move last evening, said it probably is "appropriate" but doesn't deal with the larger issue.
"Is it less offensive if violence is with a marriage or domestic relationship? No, violence is violence and must be treated seriously by every component of the system -- including the courts," the governor said.
Bollinger's decision to reverse himself and to have another judge reconsider Weiner's request to have his conviction wiped out brought expressions of shock from the prosecutor and defense attorney in the case.
"Mr. Weiner has been treated differently by the judiciary than any other domestic violence defendant that I have ever heard of," said Bryan A. Levitt, whose partner argued the case on Weiner's behalf. "I appreciate the sensitive position Judge Bollinger is in, and I am sorry for the loud and vocal, uninformed minority."
Prosecutor James O'C. Gentry Jr. said that he has never seen such a reversal in his 12 years with the county. Gentry tried the case and argued against wiping out the conviction, citing the serious head injuries suffered by Weiner's then-estranged wife.
"Obviously we didn't think probation before judgment was an appropriate disposition. We welcome the opportunity to litigate it again," Gentry said.
In a letter yesterday to Judge John Grason Turnbull II, the county's administrative judge, Bollinger asked that he no longer be assigned cases involving rape, sexual assault and domestic violence, citing "extensive publicity generated by this case."
"That publicity has in my judgment reached the point at which my impartiality might be reasonably questioned in rape prosecutions, sexual offense prosecutions and cases involving allegations of domestic violence," he wrote.
He went on to say, "I have no question about my ability to be impartial in these cases," but he cited a rule in the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct that allows a judge to recuse himself from cases "when extensive publicity has caused a judge's impartiality to be questioned by litigants."
Reversed on a technicality
In his order, he reversed his Jan. 31 decision on a legal technicality, saying Weiner never signed a "written consent" agreeing to the terms of probation before judgment.
And Bollinger issued an order excusing himself from the Weiner case because of complaints filed with the Judicial Disabilities Commission and protests lodged with Judge Robert M. Bell, the chief judge of the Court of Appeals.
Bollinger refused to comment yesterday beyond saying that his order "speaks for itself."
Bell met behind closed doors yesterday afternoon with members of the legislative women's caucus. After the meeting, he said he was not sure whether any Maryland judge had recused himself (( before from an entire category of cases.
He declined to comment on Bollinger's actions, saying, "I don't get involved in a judge's decision on individual cases."
Weiner, 50, a pawnshop owner and precious-metals dealer, was convicted on the battery charge after a December 1994 incident in which he beat his 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 a tile floor numerous times, injuring her head, ear and eye.
In changing the battery conviction to probation before judgment, Bollinger 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.