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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

I cannot and will not, nor will [Judge Rasin] or any other judge, have someone put on the table an outline, and say, "we ought to do thus and so," and then we will just accept that without looking into it, without investigating it, without thinking about it, without looking at it in its fuller context and its impact on what we do, how we do it and why we do it. That's what we were doing.

I don't think anybody can legitimately accuse the judiciary of being uncooperative. We are extremely cooperative. -- But we will not accept blindly an idea, called "reform" or called anything else, until we are satisfied that it does, in fact, fit within the construct which is our justice system, and it is something we can legitimately do and still fulfill the obligations placed upon us by the Constitution.

Yes, the process worked, because what happened was, the point that was made was, send this idea through the coordinating council. That's what I told Mayor O'Malley from the very beginning, that's what Judge Rasin said to him and that's what has happened. When the issue was presented to the coordinating council, a subcommitte was set up to look at this idea, and despite the fact that we never really received any detailed plans, that subcommitte was able to look at what was intended and come up with something that makes some sense.

When somebody says, "I've got a plan, accept it," that's not cooperation. That's called mandating something. And the judiciary cannot be mandated to do things when it has not been demonstrated to be the appropriate thing to do consistent with our mission.

When Mayor O'Malley presented his proposal that included stick figures, was the problem that it lacked details?

That was the issue. I understand what the concept is, but how does it work was really the key piece of it. So, we were looking for something more than a concept; we were looking for a plan.

What was your reaction to the stick figures?

I'm not going to get into that. I'm not going to get into that. I'm really not going to get into that. You will recall I never commented on it one way or another, and I'm not going to start commenting on it now.

You say the judiciary was always willing to cooperate, and you made that known. Yet, on Feb. 11 O'Malley asked state legislators to withhold money for the city courts because they were "dysfunctional" and the system was clogged, it just didn't work. What was your reaction to that? Did you have any idea that was coming?

No. In fact, I was there that day, having been called to report on the progress we'd made on the backlog, the trial delay issue. -- And we did that, and those reports showed tremendous progress. In fact, that's what I reported to them, and I pointed out some of the progress that was made.

So, we were very happy with the progress that had been made. And then to hear that was a little bit disconcerting, particularly because this concept had been presented to the council for discussion two days before. And at that point, a subcommittee had already been appointed. So, it was never our decision not to consider the concept.

I was a little bit disappointed that [O'Malley's call to withhold money from the city courts] happened within that time frame without there having been an opportunity for the process to work. What I got was the impression that cooperation is not what was being asked for; it was something else. We were supposed to blindly adopt something.

What was there to adopt if the mayor did not have a plan, just a concept?

That's my point. We were supposed to go on board without knowing how this concept would work, or even having the details of how it would work. -- I guess when you get right down to it, this last episode demonstrates the danger of politicizing an issue.

Nobody wants the process to work less than efficiently, but the people who can make it work are those people who are on the ground, who work with it every day, and if they are allowed to address their own problems without the glare of the media or without having politicians looking over their shoulders, I think we would see a lot more progress being made. We won't hear about it, but we don't need to hear about it. If progress is being made and the system is more efficient, I think we're all better off.

Does the move to expedite cases at Central Booking have more to do with the zero tolerance policing that Mayor O'Malley favors than addressing an existing problem? The police will be making more arrests, and those cases will need to be moved through the court quickly.

I can't say that. I don't know -- nor is that really important to me. The truth of the matter is that the judiciary has got to respond to whatever the executive does in terms of creating the cases. The philosophy that underlies it is not something that I feel equipped at this point to talk about.

Is the system dysfunctional?

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