Judiciary defended by Rasin

Chief district judge finds comments by O'Malley `offensive'

`We care about the city'

Panel hears response to mayor's call for major court reforms

March 01, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

The chief judge of Maryland's District Court defended her role in efforts to reform Baltimore's court system, labeling recent criticism by Mayor Martin O'Malley as "offensive."

"The implication is that judges don't care about Baltimore City," a clearly piqued Judge Martha F. Rasin told a Senate subcommittee yesterday in Annapolis. "I take offense at that. We care about the city as much, if not more than other people."

Rasin was responding to comments O'Malley has made in Annapolis and Baltimore in recent weeks questioning the judges' commitment to major reform.

O'Malley also upset some top judges this week with the release of his plan to overhaul the city court system -- a plan that included stick figures designed to show his idea in the simplest of terms.

The mayor is hoping to change the way the beleaguered court system operates, with the goal to dispose of half of all criminal cases within 24 hours to allow the system to give more attention to the most serious ones.

In particular, O'Malley has been at odds with Rasin and other top judges over their reluctance to open a courtroom in the city's central booking facility up to seven days a week.

But Rasin told the subcommittee that O'Malley's reform plan lacked important details. For example, she said, the mayor does not define which cases are "trivial" and worthy of quick resolution.

"If someone breaks into your car, that is not a trivial case to you," Rasin said.

Rasin told legislators that it's not the judiciary's place to embrace the mayor's "zero-tolerance" crime-control efforts. Rather, she said, judges are charged with giving every defendant a fair hearing in an impartial setting.

`People's rights'

"I'm worried about people's rights. I'm worried about our integrity," Rasin said. "I can't say that I will accept pleas in 50 percent of the cases.

"We need to find a use for that courtroom so it's not public safety's courtroom or the mayor's courtroom," Rasin added. "It's the District Court's courtroom."

After yesterday's three-hour hearing, key legislators said they had little sympathy for Rasin and other top judges in the state, noting that O'Malley is simply trying to shake up a system with many problems.

"She has misread the political urgency of this," said Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, a Prince George's County Democrat who heads the budget subcommittee. "We all do some grandstanding, but it's going to take this to bring these two together."

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairman of the Senate budget committee and a strong O'Malley supporter during last year's mayoral election, concurred.

"Too bad," said Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, when told about Rasin's comments. "We can't have such thin skins. Everybody's at fault in this one.

"The mayor may have been intemperate, but he was speaking for the people, who are feeling intemperate," Hoffman said.

The General Assembly has withheld nearly $9 million from the budgets of the judiciary and other public safety agencies as a way to force their cooperation in reform efforts in Baltimore.

Restrictions likely

That money may be released in coming weeks, legislators said, but the Assembly will likely put restrictions on the judiciary's budget for next year to ensure further cooperation.

Legislators are considering giving all parties involved in court reform until Sept. 1 to come up with a firm plan for expanding the operation of the courtroom at the central booking facility.

"I think [the deadline is] a marvelous idea," Rasin said. "I think it needs to come off dead center."

But O'Malley said studying the issue until September was not necessary.

"It's more of the same," O'Malley said. "I think there's a greater urgency than that."

Rasin is not alone in raising questions about O'Malley's plan. LaMont W. Flanagan, the commissioner of state pretrial detention and services who oversees the city jail, said he, too, has questions.

Court commissioners

In particular, Flanagan said he worries about a part of the plan that appears to diminish the role of court commissioners, who often free defendants on their own recognizance soon after their arrest.

Flanagan said he feared that under the mayor's plan, many defendants could actually spend more time in jail waiting to see a judge instead of a commissioner.

In addition, Flanagan pointed out that expanding court hours at the central booking facility would require increased security and more state spending.

"I personally perceive the plan as a newborn child that has to be taught how to walk and talk," Flanagan said.

O'Malley said he had no objection to ironing out the plan's specifics, as long as it is done quickly.

"I'm not making light of operational details," the mayor said.

Sun staff writer Caitlin Francke contributed to this article.

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