Judge Byrnes pleads his case Fine line: Talk show appearances underline need for better understanding of judiciary.

March 15, 1997

CREDIT BALTIMORE City Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes vTC with recognizing the importance of public confidence in the judicial system. Faced with a tough decision -- the sentencing of Stephen Pagotto, a Baltimore City police officer convicted of involuntary manslaughter during a traffic stop -- he knew his ruling would be controversial. So he has gone to great lengths -- including two appearances on radio talk shows -- to explain why he ordered a three-year prison term.

That is unconventional behavior for a judge and, in the opinion of many court watchers, it is also risky business. Some talk shows can explain things, but because the discussion is easily steered by callers airing their own concerns, these shows are not necessarily the best forum for putting out a logical, thorough explanation of complicated matters.

Judge Byrnes notes that he does not now have any decisions pending in the Pagotto case, so that he is technically not breaking rules against judges' discussing cases before them. Moreover, judges are frequently speakers at legal and academic meetings, at which they are free to refer to cases that have come before them in the past. This is not a bad thing in a society where confidence in the judiciary is crucial to the functioning of the justice system.

But Judge Byrnes is not necessarily finished with the Pagotto case. In fact, the defendant's lawyer has already said he plans to ask the judge to reconsider his sentence. If that does indeed occur, the judge's public comments could become a problem.

For those reasons, Judge Byrnes' initiative is controversial. For some it is grandstanding; for others, he is helping the public understand how he reached a painful decision.

His talk show appearances raise a larger question for the judiciary: Why are there so few public avenues for judges to explain themselves? Why not open more courtrooms to cameras, so that more citizens can see how trials work? Why not make more use of retired judges in helping the public to understand controversial cases? Unlike Judge Byrnes, they would not be jeopardizing future decisions in the case.

Judge Byrnes clearly wants the public to understand why he would send a veteran police officer to jail for a deadly but involuntary mistake. That impulse ought to be shared by more judges -- and the judiciary as a whole ought to find good ways to accomplish that goal.

Pub Date: 3/15/97

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