Mayor urged to temper attacks

O'Malley, judges meet about court reforms, but rift remains wide

February 25, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's blistering attacks on state judges have fractured a relationship that legal experts -- and the judges -- say is vital to reform of city courts.

O'Malley appeared to take steps yesterday toward repairing the ties by meeting with Maryland's two top judges for 2 1/2 hours, but the two sides appeared to remain far apart.

Legal experts, the judges and even one of O'Malley's key legislative allies say if the mayor wants reform, he'll have to substitute cooperation for confrontation.

"He has demonstrated that he is a man of action, which is certainly something the city of Baltimore desperately needs in its mayor, but in order for action to be effective, it must be tempered with judgment and, in many instances, diplomacy," said John H. Lewin Jr., coordinator of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which has been steering changes in the city court system for a year. "It doesn't help the process to throw a hand grenade in the middle of it."

But O'Malley remains convinced that his proposal for disposing of 50 percent of cases within 24 hours of arrest will work and that the judges are holding it up.

"I would hope that will be something that the rest of us will call progress soon," O'Malley said. "They are still evaluating not only the concept, but the logistics to make the concept a reality. The rest of us are at a point where we are trying to implement the operational changes and make this concept a reality."

The fight began Feb. 11 when O'Malley called the courts" dysfunctional" before state legislators. After the judges told the legislators that they had made many improvements to the beleaguered system, which has been under attack for a year, O'Malley said, "I'd like to throw up."

The fight intensified Wednesday when Chief Judge of the District Court Martha F. Rasin sent O'Malley a letter expressing outrage that he painted her as uncooperative yet had not given her specifics of his proposal -- which would require her judges to preside over cases at the city jail at least five days a week. In an interview, she termed his testimony in Annapolis a "tantrum." O'Malley responded by calling her an "obstructionist."

O'Malley's comments in Annapolis surprised and shocked the judiciary, leaving members feeling ambushed. Days before, O'Malley had met with them and members of the coordinating council to present his proposal. At that meeting, he seemed to be fostering a sense of cooperation with all of the city's justice agencies, participants said.

"Two days later he is a different mayor," said Lewin. "I think [the judges] are confused, and I'm confused. On the one hand, we saw a guy who said `I want to work with you,' and then for some reason, he goes over the top on the criticism."

Douglas Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland law school, said O'Malley's rhetoric is making matters worse.

"The only way to get reform is cooperation and mutual respect, not bullying and grandstanding," Colbert said. "I think the situation is bound to get worse, and that can only bode ill for criminal justice reform, which is badly needed."

If O'Malley had hoped to win over legislators with his approach two weeks ago, he failed. Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, a powerful committee chairman and O'Malley campaign supporter, said this week that the mayor had not put forward a specific plan to accomplish his reform goals.

Yesterday, neither Rasin nor Maryland's chief judge of the Court of Appeals, Robert M. Bell, would discuss the meeting in the city courthouse, deferring to a spokeswoman. "We were glad to have a meeting," said Sally W. Rankin, quoting the judges. "It was a good meeting. And I think we've made some progress."

O'Malley asked to meet with the judges after Rasin sent him the letter. But before he sat down with the judges, he reiterated his stance that they were the only people holding up his plan.

"I challenge, in a very head-on way, the leaders of our judiciary at all levels to rise to the occasion, the opportunity, and to the clear instructions of the people of this city, that we are not willing, for the sake of business as usual and preserving their bridge over the River Kwai, to continue burying our sons in the number that we have been burying them for the last 10 or 12 years," O'Malley said.

He added: "What the people of Baltimore elected was a mayor who wasn't going to play the old game and politely allow the dysfunction to continue. I am not going to politely allow the dysfunction to continue."

It's that attitude that rankles the judges, smarting over O'Malley's Annapolis comments. Judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and other members of the criminal justice system have been working on reforms for a year.

"We certainly didn't expect to be slammed at the hearing the way we were," said Judge Keith E. Mathews, chief of the city's District Court.

Ellen M. Heller, Baltimore's administrative judge for the Circuit Court, said the judges and O'Malley have a common goal. "[The judges] were certainly not prepared to hear that, what did he say? He wanted to throw up. We all live in Baltimore City. We all care about Baltimore City."

Both judges said the damage was not irreparable. They said they had high hopes when O'Malley came into office and want to maintain a working relationship.

"I do hope that in the next few days we see this whole heightened rhetoric dissipated and that we once again go back to constructively working together," Heller said. "We're still looking forward to opening that new chapter."

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