Judge's legendary temper awes lawyers and litigants Judicial panel studies courtroom outbursts

November 04, 1997|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

CENTREVILLE -- Inside the 201-year-old Queen Anne's County courthouse, jury duty typically starts with a warm welcome and a hint of the fury that might lie ahead. Potential jurors are told to silence any cell phone or pager.

"If it goes off," sheriff's Deputy John Kerchner told a group last week, "so will the judge."

For years, Queen Anne's Circuit Judge John W. Sause Jr. has been going off -- displaying a temper so quick that the county's public defender says he avoids Sause's courtroom and an assistant prosecutor worries about effects on the judge's health.

The state's judicial review commission recently filed charges alleging that Sause's outbursts have regularly violated rules for acceptable behavior in the courtroom.

The Eastern Shore judge reportedly has tossed a book at a defense attorney, had a man handcuffed for making an inappropriate noise, ridiculed litigants and screamed at attorneys, according to the charges.

"He's got about an eighth-of-an-inch fuse," said one local attorney, who asked not to be named even though he is one of many who praise Sause's intellect.

Sause declined to be interviewed. But his attorney, Joseph Finnerty of Piper & Marbury in Baltimore, said Sause hasn't done anything wrong and denies shouting in the courtroom or tossing a book.

"I'm quite confident they [the charges] will be dismissed," Finnerty said.

The attorney said Sause is "rather blunt" when the judge believes attorneys aren't prepared or litigants aren't respectful. Finnerty said he was unaware of any cases that were overturned because of Sause's conduct.

For Sause, whose passion for law is such that he keeps 18th-century English legal commentaries on his night stand, the charges have come as a shock, his supporters say.

At 64, Sause is very much a town fixture. Smoking his pipe, he walks to work for three blocks along Centreville's tree-lined streets. He often arrives at the courthouse before 6: 30 a.m. and works past dark. His demeanor in the courtroom was described as usually calm and -- at times -- gracious and wittily self-deprecating.

But Sause, the county's only circuit judge, has launched tirades that have gone unchecked in the nine years he's been on the bench, according to lawyers and judicial officials.

That changed last month, when the Commission on Judicial Disabilities completed its investigation. Among more than 10 witnesses were the Queen Anne's County state's attorney and two sitting judges. One of the judges was an attorney at the time of one incident cited.

Another person interviewed was Stefan Skipp, public defender for several Eastern Shore counties, including Queen Anne's. According to the charges, Skipp described Sause this way: "He is totally explosive. You never know when he is going to fly off. He does it frequently. That is why I do not go in there [Sause's courtroom] any longer. I hired a person to go in there for me."

After a hearing, Sause could be reprimanded or removed from the bench, although the latter seems unlikely.

Recently, the commission reprimanded Baltimore Circuit Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson for putting a lawyer in handcuffs after he tried to speak for his client last year. Although the commission is striving to be more active, such reprimands remain rare.

The charges have received mixed reactions here. That Sause has a volatile temper is something even his admirers concede.

"Are there times when he goes off and you wonder what prompted that? Sure," said Centreville attorney Christopher F. Drummond, an admirer.

He said the judge typically moves on within minutes, does not hold grudges and never allows emotions to cloud his keen legal judgment. "I would say Judge Sause, by and large, treats attorneys with the respect, or irritation, that they largely deserve."

Sause grew up in Baltimore and graduated first in his 1951 class at Boys' Latin School, where Dyson P. Ehrhardt, an alumnus and employee of the school for more than 30 years, remembered him as "very serious." As a senior, Sause already planned to pursue law, the yearbook said.

Sause went on to serve brief stints as an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore and a legislative aide to then-Gov. Spiro T. Agnew. During the 1970s and '80s, he worked as the public defender for Queen Anne's and four other Eastern Shore counties.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed him Queen Anne's Circuit Court judge in 1988. In 1990, voters gave him a 15-year term -- meaning he won't have to stand for re-election because he would have to retire at 70.

Throughout his career, Sause has gained the admiration of many of Queen Anne's 37,000 residents by being tough on drug dealers and parents who fail to pay child support.

But the judge also has raised the ire of many attorneys and litigants who have appeared before him. One is Elise Davis, a Chestertown attorney who filed a complaint with the Judicial Disabilities Commission last year.

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