Top judge holds court

Bell: Known for his brilliant legal mind and his eloquence, the state's top jurist found himself at the center of a controversy over the city court system.

March 19, 2000|By MIKE ADAMS

HIS credentials are impressive. First, he went from Harvard Law School to Piper & Marbury. Then he worked his way up through the judicial ranks from District Court to Baltimore Circuit Court to the Court of Special Appeals. Then, in 1996, he became the state's top judicial officer when he was named Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of Maryland after sitting on the state's highest court for about five years.

Meet Robert M. Bell, a civil rights pioneer who in 1960, when he was just 16 years old, struck a blow at segregation by walking into a Baltimore restaurant and asking to be served. Bell's conviction for trespassing sparked a legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bell's friends say he has a brilliant legal mind and a silver tongue. But, recently the state's top judge has found himself in much the same fix as Albert Belle, the Orioles' mercurial slugger, who draws boos from some fans no matter what he does.

Bell and Chief District Judge Martha Rasin drew heat after they resisted a push to have a full-time district judge assigned to the city's Central Booking and Intake Center. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley maintains that the judge is a necessary "reform" that will prevent clogging in the courts.

Bell says the plan needed study by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which forged an agreement that could put a judge in place by July 1. Bell says the process worked just as it should have, and he doesn't understand why he was cast as an "ogre." Reforms? Actually, none was made, Bell says. The Circuit Court's problems were being addressed, and the District Court was working fine. Bell shared his views during an interview with Perspective Editor Mike Adams.

Baltimore's court system has been stung by disclosures that cases were bungled, defendants in murder cases walked free because they didn't get speedy trials, and the mandatory sentence law was not being enforced for gun crimes. Have these problems been fixed?

A number of those problems are not really judicial issues. We are a part of the criminal justice system, we're not the head of it; we don't control every aspect of it.

Let me go back to 1998 when there were revelations about the dismissal of cases for the lack of a speedy trial, and there was an issue about how backlogged the system was. And there was a problem.

In my Jan. 26, 1999, State of the Judiciary Address, I spoke about the backlog and the the speedy trial situation in Baltimore City. I outlined what was going to be done to correct that situation. Judge [David B.] Mitchell, chief of the criminal docket, had a very definite plan to change the culture that created the postponement problem. It had to do with re-instituting the move list, it had to do with putting into play four retired judges who would work on the oldest cases first to reduce the backlog. It had to do with centralizing the arraignment process because one of the problems was that we had decentralized it. Every court was doing arraignments, as opposed to one or two, which had been the way it was done in the past. We got a handle on that situation very quickly. I thought it was necessary that there be cooperation and coordination among the various members and aspects of the criminal justice system. That gave rise to the reinstitution of that coordinating council which has been in place since February or March of last year.

The backlog situation is well in check. The postponements were dramatically down. The cases in the system had been reduced tremendously. We were able to dispose of more cases in 1999 that had been filed by the prosecutor. That was the first time that had been done since 1995 or 1996.

Is there room for improvement? Of course. But we're trying to do justice and not just dispose of cases arbitrarily just to get rid of them. We've got to make sure that the process is not just fair, but it appears to be fair as well.

Charging is not a judicial function, that is a prosecutorial function. You will not find any case where a judge has refused to impose a mandatory sentence that has been properly requested and notice given of. If a judge doesn't do that, that judge is subject to having that decision reversed.

On Wednesday, a jury acquitted three men whose murder case came to symbolize all that's wrong with the city Circuit Court. The case was dismissed last year when a judge ruled that three years of postponements had denied the defendants a right to a speedy trial under state law. Then the decision was reversed, and they were retried, but one witness recanted, one died and evidence got lost. What would you say to the family of the victim, Shawn L. Suggs?

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