Judge selected for Tripp trial relishes challenge

Her ability to listen, sense of fairness will aid Leasure, many say

October 10, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The trial of Linda R. Tripp is at least a few months away, but the pressure of the high-profile case is already building on Howard County Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure.

Many legal observers say the case will be decided and shaped during motions hearings before Leasure and might not even reach a jury. However she rules on the complicated legal issues, the relatively inexperienced judge is assured of intense scrutiny from the legal community and the news media.

Sounding like a circumspect coach before a big game, Leasure says only that she likes a good "challenge," refusing to comment further on the case or even allow a new photograph to be taken for fear of being accused of grandstanding.

Leasure's selection last week to oversee the Tripp criminal case might raise eyebrows, given that she has been a judge for just four years and practiced only civil law before that. But lawyers and others familiar with Leasure list qualities that help explain why Howard County Administrative Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. made a good choice among the five Howard circuit judges. These observers say both sides will get ample time to air their arguments before Leasure, a judge known for her work ethic, patience and kindness.

"I know I'm going to lose [before her] sometimes," said Carol A. Hanson, the district public defender for Howard and Carroll counties. "But I'm not going to feel too bad about it if it's in Judge Leasure's courtroom."

A Howard County grand jury indicted Tripp in July on charges she illegally tape-recorded a December 1997 telephone conversation with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and then had her attorney disclose its contents to Newsweek magazine. Tripp's disclosures led to the impeachment of President Clinton.

Already, the file is thick with motions -- and attorneys expect to file more, setting the stage for some lengthy hearings. Most of those motions deal with the federal grant of court-ordered immunity extended to Tripp by Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel.

Joseph Murtha, a Tripp lawyer, has argued in those filings that state prosecutors used his client's immunized testimony against her while building their case. State prosecutors fired back that they can use the tape and other evidence against Tripp because she wasn't officially granted immunity until 34 days after turning over the tapes and other evidence.

Some lawyers in Howard County said those legal issues and Leasure's own attributes could eventually collide: Leasure's too nice, they said, and sometimes lets frivolous arguments last too long.

"Sometimes, she lets lawyers go on and on," said one attorney, who has appeared before Leasure several times and requested anonymity.

Yet, despite that complaint, the vast majority of lawyers, judges, courtroom observers and associates say the judge is probably the perfect one to hear the case. She is fair, they said. She will assiduously research the arguments and come back with a strong opinion, they said. And, most important, she will listen, they said.

"Some judges will make up their minds reading the file before listening to your arguments," said F. Todd Taylor, an assistant county solicitor. "She asks questions. When she doesn't understand, she asks questions to help her focus on the issues."

No matter how Leasure handles the case, experts said, she might end up getting caught in a juggernaut she can't control -- something that California Judge Lance A. Ito experienced during the O. J. Simpson trial.

`No-win situation'

"This is a no-win situation for any judge," said Abe Dash, a University of Maryland law professor. "If she dismisses the case for good reasons, people who hate Tripp will pillory her. If she proceeds with the case, people who think Tripp is a heroine will pillory her."

Even if Leasure conducts ideal hearings and keeps control of a potential media frenzy, she will have other judges looking over her shoulder. With near certainty, her decisions will be appealed.

But Leasure, 47, has dealt with politics and bad publicity before -- though on a much smaller scale -- during her election bid in 1996, when the normally placid judicial election process turned ugly.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening had appointed Leasure, a Democrat, to fill a vacancy on the Howard Circuit Court. He also tapped Donna Hill Staton to fill the other vacancy on the Howard bench. Required to run for election, they teamed up to defend their seats in a tightly contested race against attorney Jonathan Scott Smith and then-District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman.

Remaining impartial

Issues of race, gender and qualifications permeated the contest. Much of the criticism was directed at Leasure and Hill Staton, who is black, but the judges had to be careful about defending themselves and their stances on crime and punishment -- to avoid appearing biased when future defendants appeared in court.

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