Judge Bollinger's hot seat Reversal, recusal: Actions raise questions about ability to fulfill obligations on bench.

February 12, 1997

JUDGE THOMAS J. BOLLINGER'S decision to erase the conviction of a wife-batterer in exchange for a clean record and a longer probationary period was neither unprecedented nor illegal for a first-time offender. But it raises questions about the wisdom of such procedures -- and about the seriousness with which the criminal justice system treats violence against women.

If the judge's initial decision was troubling, his subsequent actions left the public puzzled and compounded his own difficulties. First, he reversed the ruling on a technicality, an action that would seem to give defense lawyers a good case for appealing any judgment. Then he asked that he be excused from any cases involving domestic violence or sexual offenses, since he believes the public will not consider him credible regardless of how he rules.

It is common for judges to excuse themselves from particular cases, but we know of no other instance in which a judge has asked to be excused from an entire area of the law.

In one respect Judge Bollinger's request is justified. Most of his critics have rushed to judgment without having fully investigated the case -- a classic way to create political pressure on the judiciary. This tactic could prompt a backlash that may even undermine support for victims of domestic violence. Judge Bollinger's initial decision may have carried large symbolic significance, but the spectacle of a group of legislators angrily demanding revenge on the state's entire judicial system is a much more dangerous sight.

Whatever course Judge Bollinger now takes -- we think he should resign if he feels he cannot fully discharge his duties -- it is clear that the state's new chief judge, Robert M. Bell, needs to make sure that Maryland judges at all levels understand why these cases stir such outrage. Public confidence in the judiciary is crucial to our system of justice.

If this is a crisis for Judge Bollinger, it is also a challenge for Chief Judge Bell and a time of reckoning for the Baltimore County bench. This case -- along with Judge Bollinger's earlier criticism of the state's rape laws as too strict, and insensitive remarks by Judge Robert E. Cahill in sentencing a man convicted of killing his wife -- have raised questions about attitudes among Baltimore County's circuit court judges.

Violence against wives and girlfriends is as damaging and deadly as any other form of violence. Courts play a critical role in getting this message across.

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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