Kaplan to quit courts' top post

State's chief judge effectively forced decision, he says

July 23, 1999|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The turmoil in Baltimore's criminal justice system has prompted the city's top judge to decide to resign his post after being effectively stripped of his power to lead reform of the courts.

Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan said in an interview that he plans to announce his resignation in September -- his 15th anniversary as administrative judge -- and return to the bench as a trial judge early next year.

Kaplan, 62, said he believes that Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of the Maryland Court of Appeals has wanted his ouster for the past two years. In May, he said, after the courts came under intense scrutiny because of chronic trial delays that led to the dismissal of serious criminal charges, he told Bell of his plans to leave.

"I knew he wanted me to go," Kaplan said. "He didn't say, `You must leave the post.' What had transpired over the past 2 1/2 years would indicate to any sane person that he wanted to replace me. And I think I am still sane."

Sources said Bell, who has the power to remove Kaplan from his position, effectively strong-armed the administrative judge into stepping down. The sources said Kaplan -- who has had a tense relationship with Bell for years -- was an easy target after the breakdown in the courts became so serious that top state officials stepped in.

Bell would not personally answer questions. His spokeswoman, Sally Rankin, said Bell "talked to Judge Kaplan about his plans sometime ago and again more recently."

"That's all he's going to say,"Rankin said.

It remains unclear who Kaplan's replacement will be. Bell appoints the administrative judge for each of the state's eight Circuit Court jurisdictions.

The most obvious contender is Judge David B. Mitchell, who has drawn praise from the legislature and others for cracking down on trial postponements and reducing the court's backlog since he took charge of the criminal docket last winter. But one lawmaker said Mitchell does not want the job.

Mitchell declined to comment.

Kaplan's impending departure comes as little surprise. In recent months, as details of the crisis in the courthouse came to light, lawmakers and court officials placed much of the blame on Kaplan's shoulders. Kaplan, who oversees the 30 civil and criminal judges, has all but been stripped of his power over the criminal docket.

He said he was frustrated by being bumped "out of the loop."

"I felt like an outsider looking in," he said, "[and I] also felt, `Hey, I'm the guy who said what ought to be done and now it's being done, but I'm not there to do it.' "

John H. Lewin Jr., coordinator of the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, said Kaplan tried to convince the legislature that a court crisis was looming and that there should be more judges appointed. But no one seemed to listen until after murder charges were dismissed against four suspects in January because their trial had been delayed for three years, he said.

"I don't think he is deserving of any criticism in not recognizing that there were problems affecting the criminal justice system in Baltimore," Lewin said. "He saw that there were problems, and he went to those who he thought could do something about it. But they didn't perceive that there was a crisis until this year."

But others said that Kaplan's leadership in the courthouse was lacking.

"I can't believe we have all these problems with evidence, and the judges don't have responsibility," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "I think the judges are more responsible for what is taking place in our criminal justice system than any other component. They have a higher calling of responding to the public and assuring the public. I hope Judge Kaplan's replacement will respond to that higher calling."

Rawlings -- as did others -- praised Kaplan for his individual accomplishments as a judge. Kaplan was integral in resolving lawsuits over special education in the city schools that led to increased state funds and the creation of a new school board to be jointly appointed by the governor and the mayor.

Kaplan also oversaw the state's handling of the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and the huge influx of asbestos cases into the city courts.

But he has locked horns with Bell several times, especially in the past two years. The two battled over whether to place a judge at the city jail. Kaplan wanted to do so, as did state law makers. Bell did not.

After it was disclosed in February that the court system could save $21 million a year by placing a judge at the jail, Bell and other opponents of the idea backed down. A judge now hears cases in the jail twice a week.

The crisis in the criminal docket was apparently the last straw.

Kaplan said he tried to stem the ever-increasing flow of cases before it reached crisis proportions. He said he asked prosecutors not to charge as many drug cases. He tried to get money so the public defender's office could have more lawyers.

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