O'Malley ties aside, court beyond repair

This Just In...

January 18, 2002|By Dan Rodricks

A CITIZEN KNOWN as Miss Little stood before the wife of the mayor of Baltimore yesterday morning and declared: "Excuse me, Judge Youronner, I already been to see a psychiatrist and I am not crazy." Not only not crazy, Miss Little insisted, but she was sound in every way. "I'm fine. I'm good. I'm excellent."

Miss Little, accused of some never-mentioned minor offense, had just been called to present herself before Catherine Curran O'Malley, the judge assigned to the dubious judicial experiment called Early Disposition Court, a pet project of the mayor of Baltimore, in the basement of the old Sears on North Avenue.

Miss Little had heard "competency" and "outpatient" mentioned, and the words seemed to set her off. She crossed her arms. Her eyes widened, her neck stiffened, her jaw jutted. Though her face was full of displeasure, Miss Little saluted O'Malley respectfully, calling her "judge" and "your honor," but running the words together.

"Judge Youronner," Miss Little said. "Do me a favor. Don't let them entrap me like this."

The lawyers in the room seemed to think Miss Little did not understand what was happening. They wanted her to be evaluated by a psychiatrist.

O'Malley, a District Court judge but five months, appeared to agree, but she listened to Miss Little with admirable patience, explained things clearly and, despite repeated interruptions, talked her way to a peaceful resolution.

"The state asks that you be detained but I'm not gonna do that," O'Malley told Miss Little, deciding to let her go as long as she agreed to the psychiatric evaluation. "I just want to make sure you understand these proceedings."

And in another minute or so, Miss Little did understand, and she agreed to see a psychiatrist on Calvert Street and to show up another day for court. Her countenance softened. She smiled at Judge Youronner and said, "Thank you and have a wonderful afternoon."

There was nothing particularly unusual about the case, but it revealed in Katie O'Malley a kind of competence and confidence I've seen in judges with a lot more experience than she. And, in the eye-glazingly monotonous call of the docket yesterday in Early Disposition Court, she seemed to handle all of her duties with precision, efficiency and courtesy, though the results would probably not have pleased her husband.

Her husband was in office only a couple of months before he pushed for this E.D. Court, drawing stick figures to explain his simple plan.

His simple plan - to dispose of minor cases quickly by offering defendants attractive plea agreements within a day of their arrest - appears to achieve next to nothing. It's little more than another place for defendants to be arraigned.

Yesterday morning, I heard seven cases dismissed and nine dispatched by defendants agreeing to perform community service or get drug treatment. Only two defendants agreed to plead guilty to their crimes.

I counted 17 who said they wanted to come back in 30 days for trial and then, with my eyes starting to glaze, I left. I had seen this show before.

Interesting thing about all this: That E.D. Court is a pet project of Martin O'Malley - and a politically disputed one at that - did not preclude Katie O'Malley from being assigned to it.

Someone - perhaps an ethicist with too much time on his hands - might see a glaring conflict of interest: Will the wife of the mayor feel pressure to dispose of more cases in E.D. Court because it's something in which her husband has invested his credibility? Won't she put a rocket on the docket just to make her man happy?

But let's be real.

Even if she wanted to, it's hard to see how Katie O'Malley could make E.D. Court a winner. She didn't rush Miss Little into pleading guilty, did she? Unless she badgers defendants into accepting deals they don't want - and they don't want because many of them are already on probation from other offenses - then Katie O'Malley can't do much to change what has become apparent: E.D. Court doesn't work.

Still, you can see how someone might see a conflict in her being assigned there.

On the other hand, I find it much harder to see what a state judicial ethics panel apparently sees - that this new and eager judge should not preside over any cases in which police officers are witnesses because of her family's "special relationship" with the police; they guard her husband and her house. Because the mayor appoints the police commissioner and the police commissioner hires the police, then Katie O'Malley should not be assigned to any cases involving the police?

Can you say, "Stretch"?

This sounds a little like political payback to me - the state judiciary getting back at the O'Malley clan for the mayor's criticism of judges - but, even viewed without such cynicism, the ruling strikes me as unfair.

It suggests that if any judge ever had a relationship with a small group of police - and many folks have, either through family or work - they are disqualified. Worse, the panel seems to be saying that a husband and wife are incapable of leading independent professional lives and having independent thoughts.

The potential for this "conflict" existed when the mayor's wife was nominated for a judgeship. All facts were known when the governor named her to the bench. If this conflict was legitimate, why didn't some legal scholar speak up before Katie O'Malley became Judge Youronner?

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