With experience comes confidence

Learning: After six months on the bench, Pamila J. Brown feels more comfortable but acknowledges she's not a finished judge.

The Making Of A Judge

January 04, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

The sight has become a familiar one in Howard District Court's Courtroom One: Judge Pamila J. Brown on the bench with a determined look on her face, staring at the defendant over her half-lenses.

"You are aware you could spend the next year thinking about what you've done in the Howard County Detention Center?" she asks a first-time drunken-driving offender one morning in late November.

Ultimately, she is lenient - granting probation before judgment with no supervision.

More than six months after her first day on the bench - the Tuesday after Memorial Day - Brown has adopted her judicial face.

Once an energetic and uninhibited speaker, she measures her words more carefully. And she rarely misses the opportunity to lecture a defendant - at times even when prosecutors choose not to go forward with a case.

Brown, 48, has spent the past half-year in a fishbowl, her ever action, her every word, her every ruling and imperfection and mistake on display and open for argument and criticism.

But while she says she is comfortable with where she is on the judicial learning curve, she also acknowledges that she is not a finished judge.

She would welcome face-to-face discussions, she says, with lawyers and court workers who have quietly criticized her early procedural errors and style.

But that candor has been scarce - a product of the inherent isolation that comes with her new job.

"I'm willing to listen and willing to learn and willing to change if I need to change," she said.

Columbia lawyer Clarke F. Ahlers offered a nuanced analysis of her progress:

"I honestly believe she does a good job," he said. "She gives you a level playing field, listens to your arguments ... and if she doesn't have a perfect understanding of criminal law, so what?"

From lawyer to judge

Truth be told, the jury is still out on what kind of judge Brown will become. But as she navigates her new role, she can rest assured that she has company.

Between September 2001 and October 2002, about 20 attorneys like her made the move from the lawyer's table to the Maryland judicial pulpit, all of them as hungry as she for the job, all of them learning that life as a judge can be a very different thing.

For months, members of this group crammed alone, relying mainly on the more experienced colleagues in their courthouses for day-to-day advice.

It wasn't until one week in late October, while the rest of the country was riveted on the search for a serial sniper, that all of the new appointees came together in a room in the Mount Washington Conference Center, sitting in assigned seats around a U-shaped table, for their official orientation.

The week, held once a year and known unofficially as "baby judge school," drew judges with a range of experience.

Judges who had only recently been appointed learned alongside those who had been on the bench as long as a year. Brown, who by then had dispensed judgment for five months, fell in the middle.

Presenters at the orientation had a universal message: Being a judge comes with perks - no more hunting for parking spaces or racing from court to court. It also comes with responsibility.

"Now, you are the court," Prince George's District Judge Patrice Lewis, an organizer of the school, told the assembled judges.

They would spend the better part of six days there, reading handouts stuffed into thick blue binders, watching Power Point presentations and listening as more-seasoned judges talked about the tricks and shortcuts of the profession, how best to handle a courtroom, how to avoid the pitfalls that might lead to an ethics violation or a call before the Judicial Disabilities Commission.

A stellar career can be smudged or even ruined by a single "slip of the tongue," Court of Special Appeals Judge Arrie W. Davis told the group on the first full day of orientation.

"If you don't keep your temper there, then why are you there?" he said. "Your job is to keep a lid on things."

Issue of sentencing

Ask any judge what gives him or her the most pause, the most cause for reflection, the most angst, and the answer will often revolve around sentencing.

And so, on the second full day of New Judge Orientation, the group sat for an entire morning, under the glare of fluorescent lights, and listened to the thunder of Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz.

A judge for 17 years (and college theater major), Levitz cut to the chase: "Without question," he said, "sentencing is going to be your most difficult task."

So judges should know what they can about the sentences they impose. Visit a prison ("It is a scary, scary place"). Explain your reason for imposing a particular term. ("I guess I'm still naive enough ... to think that occasionally, it's probably very occasionally ... but occasionally, I think what I say has an effect on defendants.")

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