Judge gets key post

Vaughan, 66, named chief of Maryland's District Court system

He replaces Martha Rasin

19-year veteran was appointed yesterday, takes over today

Howard County

September 19, 2001|By David Nitkin and Larry Carson | David Nitkin and Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County District Judge James N. Vaughan, a 19-year veteran who has ordered criminals to read Les Miserables and invented his own "maxim of red lights" for traffic cases, was named chief judge of Maryland's district court system yesterday.

Vaughan, 66, was appointed to one of the state's top three judicial positions by Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell. Vaughan takes his new post today, replacing Martha F. Rasin, who resigned to return to her previous job as a trial judge in Anne Arundel County.

"He brings the ability to be outspoken and present his point of view in a forceful way," Bell said. "He's got a great sense of humor. He's able to deal with weighty issues, but he doesn't take himself too seriously."

Unlike some other administrative jobs in the court system, the chief District Court position is focused almost exclusively on management - overseeing 35 courthouses, 108 judges and 1,500 employees. It leaves virtually no time to try cases, a feature that makes it unattractive to many qualified applicants.

Vaughan said yesterday he did not apply for the position. Bell called him during the weekend, while Vaughan was vacationing in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts, asking if he would consider the assignment, he said.

"Did I ask for it? No. But when the boss asks you, you do what the boss wants you to do," Vaughan said. "He called me this morning and told me that I was it. And I told him I should have gone to Canada."

Vaughan said he had been planning to retire next year but now anticipates spending about three years in the new job. By law, Maryland judges must retire at age 70.

Since 1990, Vaughan has served as the administrative judge for the 10th District, made up of Howard and Carroll counties. He is among the most senior administrative judges in the District Court system.

"Obviously, he's done a yeoman's job to make himself eligible for this appointment," said Howard County Circuit Judge James Dudley. "It's nice to see a good man get a good job."

Dudley said that Vaughan has been successful in building good will in the courthouses, particularly by organizing annual meetings of Howard judges at Tersiguel's in Ellicott City, one of the county's finest restaurants.

"He's got a nice way about him," said Joseph F. Murphy Jr., chief judge of Maryland's second-highest court, the Court of Special Appeals.

In Howard County, Vaughan presided over the state's first red-light camera cases in 1998.

When one driver complained that his brakes had locked during a rainstorm, Vaughan said, "The Vaughan maxim of red lights is that every green light will turn red. Anticipate it."

He has also meted out nontraditional sentences on occasion, assigning heroin addicts to read David Simon's Baltimore-based book The Corner, for example, or telling thieves to study Les Miserables, the Victor Hugo novel that follows a man who steals a loaf of bread.

"I don't care if they read the book, the Cliffs Notes or watch the movie," Vaughan told The Sun last year. "I just want them to realize that life can be altered by breaking the law one time."

An Army veteran, Vaughan received his law degree from the Mount Vernon School of Law and has served as deputy state's attorney and an assistant county solicitor in Howard. He was a member of the Democratic State Central Committee in the 1970s and became a district judge in 1982.

His promotion was welcomed yesterday by local political leaders of both parties.

"I think it's very prestigious for Howard County," said County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat and former police chief. "He's an outstanding individual and an outstanding judge."

Republican State Sen. Christopher J. McCabe called the news "wonderful for Howard County."

"I just think it's a recognition that he's an accomplished jurist and has the necessary administrative skills," McCabe said.

"It's more than prestige," added Del. Frank S. Turner, the Democratic leader of the county's House delegation. "He'll have a lot of influence the next time we need a new District Court judge [in Howard]."

Vaughan becomes the third chief district judge. Robert F. Sweeney held the position from its inception in a reform movement in 1970 until 1996, when Rasin took over.

Last month's announcement of Rasin's resignation was unexpected, and some speculated that she had clashed with Bell over decision-making authority. The court system has also come under fire from Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and others for slow progress in criminal cases.

Vaughan, who will earn $119,000 in the new job, up from $107,200, predicted smooth relations with Bell. He said state laws make it clear that the chief appeals judge wields almost total control.

"I don't see us having any serious disagreements," Vaughan said. "And if we do, they will be private, and he will win the argument."

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