Ethics body handcuffs O'Malley, the judge

Mayor's wife barred from cases involving police as witnesses

January 17, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

A state judicial ethics panel has decided that the family ties of new Baltimore District Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley, wife of Mayor Martin O'Malley, make it improper for her to hear at least two-thirds of the entire docket.

O'Malley, who's also the daughter of Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., said she is "perplexed" and upset by the opinion, which concludes that cases calling for police witnesses, among others, should be off-limits to her because of an appearance of partiality.

A career criminal lawyer who can now hear few criminal cases, she plans to ask the nine-member committee to modify its recent opinion to allow her to hear police witnesses during trials.

She has dubbed the decision "the judicial restraining order" and is bothered by the idea that she might be professionally influenced by her husband.

"He's the mayor, I'm a judge. It's apples and oranges," she said. "He's the last person I'd ask advice of or be influenced by. I'm not involved in how city government runs. This is not Hillary and Bill."

According to the finding, the majority of the committee agreed that the O'Malleys have a "special relationship" with the Police Department because police would, and have, protected the family when they were threatened.

O'Malley said she has had 24-hour police protection in the past but denies a special relationship with the department.

"It would be hard to have a special relationship with 3,000-plus officers. I know about 10," she said. "I don't know if any one person can have a special relationship with an entire department."

Additionally, the opinion states: "Although police officers are not directly hired or appointed by the mayor, the police commissioner is. The letterhead of the Baltimore Police Department reflects the seal of the city and the name of the mayor, and the state and the name of the police commissioner."

Abraham A. Dash, a senior professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said the ethics ruling unfairly impedes her ability to serve.

"We can carry the concept of ethics to the extreme. We should not go overboard in crippling a new judge," said Dash, who teaches ethics in one of his courses. "If I was writing the opinion I wouldn't want her to hear any case in which the City of Baltimore is a party. But a blanket refusal of police witnesses is going too far."

O'Malley, a former Baltimore County prosecutor, took the bench in August, presiding over civil cases such as neighbor disputes and protective orders.

She asked the Judicial Ethics Committee for an opinion about possible family conflicts of interest after she was appointed in July, at the strong urging of Judge Keith E. Matthews, the District Court's administrative judge.

"It was not my idea," she said. "I was shocked I was asked to do that."

Matthews, who assigns cases to all 26 judges in the District Court, said the decision is troublesome.

"I'm disappointed with the decision but I certainly respect it and will abide by it," Matthews said. "The thing that bothers me the most is I find Katie to be an excellent judge."

In finding that O'Malley should be barred from cases that involve police witnesses, the committee effectively blocked her from hearing most cases involving criminals and parking tickets.

Also named in the seven-page opinion as inappropriate for her to hear are civil suits for money judgments involving the city or its agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Community Development.

She also should not hear cases involving money judgments for or against the state, the committee found, because the lawyers representing the state are employed by the office of the attorney general.

What she can preside over are cases involving pleas, bail hearings, civil cases involving neighbors suing neighbors and protective orders, among other things.

The opinion was issued in December, and O'Malley said she is still drafting a request for a modification to allow her to hear police witnesses. She says she was denied her request to appear before the committee. "I really felt like there was denial of due process," she said. "I felt so discriminated against when opinion came out."

The committee, made up of seven judges, a lawyer and a lay person, was asked to put out about 30 opinions last year. A court official said the committee has revised just two opinions in 10 years. While the rulings are not binding, O'Malley and Matthews said they will abide by the decision.

During her 3 1/2 months on the bench, while she waited for the ruling, O'Malley has not been dealing with cases that name the mayor and City Council, or those that include police witnesses.

She did serve three or four days in traffic court, but said since she took the bench, no one in her courtroom has mentioned her husband or father.

"Oddly enough, no one has brought it up. I've been told I look like Judge Judy, and someone told me they liked my hair," she said. "No one has mentioned my husband or my father. They're more consumed with what's happening to them in court."

O'Malley now mostly serves in early disposition court - a program pushed by her husband to flush minor criminal cases from city dockets - where she hears pleas and does not deal with police witnesses.

Matthews said after a three to six month rotation there, most judges would be moved to traffic or criminal court. If the Judicial Ethics Committee does not modify its decision, O'Malley will hear only civil cases in Baltimore, he said, or possibly criminal cases in another county.

O'Malley said criminal law is her passion and she would prefer to work in Baltimore. The way she sees it, she shouldn't be prevented from doing that.

"Nobody assumed I was a mouthpiece for my husband throughout my 11 years as a lawyer," she said. "I never argued before a jury holding my father's hand or my husband's hand. I took the bar by myself. I went to a bazillion interviews about my ability to be fair and impartial by myself."

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