Judge leaving circuit court

Mitchell to head national judicial organization in Nev.

`A terrible loss'

He'll preside over arraignment docket until Dec. 14

October 20, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Judge David B. Mitchell, one of Baltimore's most persistent and effective judicial reformers during his 17 years on the Circuit Court bench, has accepted a job as head of a national judicial organization based in Reno, Nev.

Trustees of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges voted yesterday to hire Mitchell as their executive director and chief executive officer. He will oversee the council's 110-member staff, which works on policies regarding children's issues such as abuse, foster care, family violence and juvenile delinquency.

Reached yesterday in Tampa, Fla., where he is attending a meeting of another juvenile justice organization, Mitchell, 56, said he was approached about the position early last month. He had been a member of the council since 1985 and a board member for seven years.

"I thought, `Is this what I want to do with the rest of my life?' So my wife and I looked at it and we decided, yeah, we're ready to do this," he said. "The only future this country has is its children, and so the most important work we can ever do is with juveniles."

He said one policy change he and the council will push is to not automatically prosecute as adults children who commit certain violent crimes, as Maryland and other states do.

Mitchell will step down immediately as an active judge but will continue to preside over an arraignment docket as a retired judge until Dec. 14.

His sudden departure is viewed as a blow to the courts, where Mitchell has overseen some of the most far-reaching reforms in decades. He also has been outspoken in his quest for results, sometimes arguing publicly with the mayor and top prosecutors.

"I'm very sad, personally and for the court," said Circuit Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller. "Judge Mitchell is an extraordinarily able jurist, and he has made such major achievements on this court. He will be a terrible loss."

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, too, said he is sorry to see Mitchell leave. "That he made the kinds of advances he did in Circuit Court was not a surprise to anybody who knew anything about his history," Bell said.

In August Mitchell resigned from running the coordinating council and the criminal docket, positions that will be taken over by Judge Stuart R. Berger. His departure will create a third Circuit Court vacancy for the governor to fill; two other judges are leaving early next year.

Mitchell joined the Circuit Court bench in 1984 and within three months became head of the juvenile docket. During his 11 years in that job, he had the system analyzed by federal consultants, set up task forces and improved services to juveniles, such as getting volunteers to act as advocates for children in the system.

He served as a civil and criminal judge before taking over administration of the criminal docket in 1999. At the time, the system was crippled by a backlog, and its trial postponement rate was a national embarrassment as serious cases were dismissed because of delays.

Mitchell helped administer a case management system, started a special court to deal with evidence disputes and revived a multiagency Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to ensure that branches of government communicated.

He also instituted a strict postponement policy, presiding - sometimes fiercely - over the court that hears postponement requests.

"We are a totally different criminal court than we were before Judge Mitchell took over, and much of the credit is due to him," Heller said.

Known both for his easy laugh and for his temper, Mitchell sometimes chewed out attorneys he thought were delinquent. But he's also quick to joke, even with wayward defendants. Recently, he delightedly informed a woman who had changed a date on a medical document that he had executed better forgeries as a child.

Mitchell said yesterday that the city's judicial system still has much work to do, such as improving early case review for defendants accused of petty criminal crimes and fixing the problems of the early disposition court.

He thinks judges and lawyers should examine the way bail is used in the city to make sure nonviolent defendants are being returned to the community quickly.

"And then, obviously, there's the violence that still permeates the community," he said. "State and local government have to make a commitment to dealing with that. ... They have to stay the course."

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