A Howard County Circuit Court judge known for making controversial remarks from the bench is facing scrutiny from Maryland's highest court after musing that Columbia has attracted "rotten apples" from the city who "act like they're living in a ghetto."
The Maryland Court of Appeals has agreed to weigh in on an appeal based solely on Judge James B. Dudley's remarks before sentencing Valentino Maurice Jackson in August 1999, remarks that Jackson's lawyers complained had racial overtones and stereotyped Baltimore residents. Jackson is black.
At the sentencing, Dudley said people moved to Columbia "to get away from people like Mr. Jackson. Not to associate with them and have them follow them out here and act like this was a jungle of some kind."
He then sentenced Jackson, who was living in Columbia at the time, to 18 years in prison for assault and related convictions.
"I think this is stepping over the edge," said Nancy S. Forster, Jackson's appellate public defender.
With legal briefs in the case yet to be filed and arguments scheduled for the court's March term, the case is expected to raise questions of how far a judge can go in using the bench as a pulpit in an era of increasing sensitivity to bias by the judiciary.
Judges are given broad discretion in sentencing, but they cannot base justice on "impermissible criteria" such as race, religion and gender, two law pro- fessors said.
But judicial experts said the words that Dudley used during the sentencing, including "animal," "jungle" and "ghetto," can insinuate race or lump a defendant into a class. While judges occasionally want to send a punishment message to the public or bemoan societal ills, their remarks are supposed to center on the defendant and the crime, according to Maryland law.
`Beyond some outer line'
"The judge really has to go beyond some outer line before we are going to reel him in," Byron L. Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said.
In an interview, Dudley said he based his sentence on such things as Jackson's history, which included drug use and failure to adhere to terms of earlier probations, as well as his actions and "intended actions" in the assault and the risk to public safety. Jackson is not from Baltimore, court officials said.
The sentence fell within state guidelines and was below the 25-year maximum. It stood up twice on appeal this year. A three-judge panel in Howard County affirmed it, as did the Court of Special Appeals, the state's intermediate appellate court. The Court of Special Appeals rejected the very argument - that Dudley's sentence was motivated by bias - that the Court of Appeals has agreed to hear.
"Those comments were not directed to the `otherness' or outsider status of the people moving into Columbia from Baltimore City or elsewhere," Court of Special Appeals Judge Deborah S. Byrnes wrote in an unpublished opinion. "Rather, they were a commentary about how many of the problems most often associated with the poorest urban areas of Baltimore City are now cropping up in suburban towns like Columbia."
"It's one of those rare cases where there are issues of whether the judge trod into one of those very few areas a judge can't trod," said Warnken, an appellate expert.
William L. Reynolds, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said he did not find it unusual that the state's top court chose to take Jackson's appeal.
"The judiciary in this state is very sensitive to issues of bias - any kind of bias," he said.
The court may want to use this case to draw a crisp distinction between permissible and inappropriate remarks, in a public message that will get the attention of judges around the state, experts said.
From the start, Jackson's case was a tough one to try, said Joseph Tauber, the lawyer who represented him at trial.
Jackson, now 33, was accused of pointing a sawed-off shotgun at a teen-ager on a Columbia parking lot about 3 a.m. July 12, 1998, in an incident witnessed by two Howard County police officers. The dispute between Jackson and the teen-ager supposedly started over a soured drug deal, prosecutors claimed.
A jury found Jackson guilty of four counts, including first-degree assault, which carries a maximum term of 25 years in prison.
At sentencing, prosecutor Sue Ellen Hantman argued for a stiff prison term, one at the top of the sentencing guidelines - 15 to 25 years.
Agreeing, Dudley talked about the problems of the city - he did not say which city - impinging on Columbia.
"He was, I guess, just venting somewhat over the circumstances in Howard County," Tauber said in an interview. "He was not very pleased, I guess, in terms of my client's behavior, to say the least."
Lawyers who try cases before Dudley said he is a fair judge who takes a hard line on criminal behavior.
He has a "good reputation" with the defense bar, said public defender Carol Hanson.