Judges must stop the foot-dragging

February 20, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

FINALLY, some blunt words from a Baltimore mayor:

"I am Martin O'Malley, mayor of Baltimore City, currently the city that bleeds." That's what the new mayor said at a legislative hearing in Annapolis.

He's right. There is too much blood flowing on Baltimore's streets. It's a crisis situation.

And yet Mr. O'Malley watched as three top state judges sugar-coated the situation, praising recent efforts to unclog the courts. What they were actually doing was trying to weasel out of the judiciary's responsibility for taking drastic steps to fix a disjointed and ineffective system.

Sure, there's been progress in cutting the court's backlog. But so much remains broken that it was ludicrous of Chief Judge Robert M. Bell to heap praise on city judges.

No wonder Mayor O'Malley could not contain himself when he spoke to state lawmakers:

"There is no cause for celebration. -- I'd like to throw up when I hear a sworn judicial officer of the state say we should celebrate."

It was an anguished, angry, emotional outburst aimed directly at the judges -- who almost never receive sharp public rebukes, even when needed. The mayor spoke of the "currently dysfunctional" criminal justice system and of the judiciary's failure -- indeed its resistance -- to try new approaches.

He was mad. He had hoped to present the legislature with a unified response to this crisis that would demonstrate to lawmakers Baltimore's total commitment to halting this crime wave. Instead, the judges failed to agree on a concerted approach.

What Mr. O'Malley heard from the judges at the Annapolis hearing could be summed up by a headline once mistakenly placed on an editorial during Jimmy Carter's presidency: "More mush from the wimp."

The editorial writer got all kinds of grief for his shockingly honest, and colloquial, assessment of the president's actions. Newspapers aren't supposed to be so direct.

Similarly, a mayor isn't supposed to say a judge's rose-colored remarks about Baltimore's crime crisis make him "want to throw up." Judges are supposed to be treated with R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Yet the days of drawn-out, polite discussions about Baltimore's criminal-justice crisis are over. Either the city's leaders take decisive action or Baltimore's sad, steep decline will accelerate.

So it was a breath of fresh air to hear Mr. O'Malley skip the diplomacy and engage in some public truth-telling.

He's taken a page from other public figures who have emerged as political truth-tellers: Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Arizona Sen. John McCain. Their popularity with the public stems from their courage to talk bluntly about what's wrong, why it went wrong and how to fix it.

The truth can hurt, but there are times when we must face up to the harsh realities of a situation. Especially when it is sapping the life out of a once-great American city.

Judges cannot evade their role in Baltimore's criminal-justice mess. They continue to quibble and contemplate. They seek more time to "study" the problem.

Take the matter of holding night court and weekend court at the city's detention center. This should have happened years ago.

And yet the District Court's chief judge, Martha F. Rasin, continues to throw up roadblocks, as did her predecessor.

Back when the District Court was in its infancy in the early 1970s, every police district in the city had Saturday and Sunday court sessions. If it worked then, it should work now -- especially since you only need to place a judge at a single, central location.

Is it too much to ask a judge to occasionally work a few hours on the weekend or at night? Other cities manage to do it. Why should people be forced to spend a night or a weekend in jail instead of receiving their day in court?

Justice delayed is, indeed, justice denied. It's unfair to the defendants and it helps create a dysfunctional system.

No wonder Mr. O'Malley was upset. Every legislator in Annapolis was on his side. So were city residents. The only ones who apparently haven't gotten the message are some of the judges.

They're on the wrong side of this issue. They are becoming part of the problem when they should be part of the solution.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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