An O'Malley in criminal courts

New assignment: After mayor's sniping, his wife is put in charge of fast-track court.

January 04, 2002

MAYOR MARTIN O'Malley has been annoyed with the city's malfunctioning criminal justice system since he took office two years ago. He has been particularly perturbed (and rightfully so) with the failure of the fast-track court experiment.

Now, if need be, he can rant and rave about it in his own kitchen -- and find a responsive ear.

His wife, Katie O'Malley, is the new judge in charge of the troubled "early disposition" court on East North Avenue.

"We rotate this job every three to six months," District Court Administrative Judge Keith E. Mathews said in explaining Judge O'Malley's transfer from hearing the civil docket.

The timing of Judge O'Malley's switch puts her in a ticklish situation in the crucial, formative stages of this year's campaign for state's attorney. Any direct or implied criticism from her of the prosecutor's office could be taken as an attack on the incumbent, Patricia C. Jessamy, who has been among her husband's frequent targets.

The North Avenue early disposition court is the main venue of a 16-month-old fast-track experiment designed to quickly clear out some of the petty cases that clog the system.

The idea is to plead out the small stuff on the front end so prosecutors and judges have more time to deal with more serious crimes.

It hasn't worked, though. One reason is that the accused know that if they reject the state's attorney's initial plea offer, they'll likely get a better deal -- or make the case disappear altogether -- by asking for postponements.

Another reason, quite frankly, is that the city's judges were never smitten with the idea of the court in the first place; they've been less than enthusiastic in the execution of their duties.

Reforms under way aim to make it more difficult for defendants to use delaying tactics. In her new assignment, Judge O'Malley will have to see that things improve.

At bottom, she may share her husband's excitement for the court's potential.

Of course, if she gets it all wrong, the mayor could always explain everything to her in one of his famous stick-figure drawings.

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