Veteran judge, former chief to leave District Court

Rasin, slated to retire today, served 16 years

August 08, 2005|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Inside Martha F. Rasin's desk sits a worn manila folder marked "humor," filled with extraordinary examples of human behavior she's witnessed in the courtroom.

After 16 years as a District Court judge - mostly on the bench in Annapolis, but including five years as the chief of the state District Court system - Rasin is slated to retire today.

"Everything in here is the human side, not the legal side," she says of the folder, adding that as she cleans out files, this is one she'll keep.

The cases include:

A drunken-driving suspect who appeared before her in a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of a martini glass and the words: "Give me a stiff one."

The motorist whose excuse for speeding was: "I had a dead rodent in my dashboard."

The litigant who brought a piece of baseboard to the courtroom so that Rasin could smell the cat urine that had soaked it.

The couple who posted bail for their son and then offered to take in a homeless defendant, too, so he wouldn't spend Christmas Eve in jail.

Rasin says that after she retires, she'll head for the beach. She'll return to the bench part time in the fall to hear more cases - and with a promise to court clerks in Annapolis that she'll continue baking her sought-after Christmas cookies.

"I have a chance to have the best of both worlds," she explains. "I can sit and have this job, and I can go out and see what else is out there."

She hopes that will include work overseas helping emerging nations with young judicial systems. She got a taste of it several years ago, working with judges in Swaziland, and answering a plea from lawyer Alan R. Friedman - now a policy adviser to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - for needed court forms for the Republic of Georgia.

Rasin, 58, has earned a reputation for being people- and detail-oriented, as a jurist and administrator, according to many of those who have worked with her. She combines a keen legal mind with patience, a willingness to work long hours and down-to-earth sensibilities, they say.

"The one thing she will be most known for is the 24-7 on domestic violence orders," says Robert M. Bell, Maryland's Court of Appeals chief judge.

Rasin was relentless in her push for an amendment to the state constitution allowing around-the-clock availability of the emergency protective orders. Voters approved the measure by a 7 to 1 margin in 2002.

Former Howard County District Court Judge James N. Vaughan succeeded Rasin as chief of the District Court and recently retired. Five years ago, he says, Rasin, then chief, eliminated the morning and afternoon traffic court dockets, known as "cattle calls." Courtrooms had been overwhelmed by the large numbers of defendants, who, as the hours passed, grew crabby waiting for their cases to be called.

Rasin instead opted for several shifts of traffic court a day, and people wait nowhere near as long. Vaughan says Rasin insisted that the old system was unfair to the public, though many judges favored it.

"But she was so right in the ultimate way this worked out. This really is something that is popular with everyone," he says.

Lawyers have praised Rasin's sensitivity to every case, saying she showed the same respect to the lawyers as to the nervous throngs who came to the court. The District Court handles less-serious criminal and civil matters, traffic cases and landlord-tenant disputes.

"A District Court judge touches more people than any other judge. I think the great judges are the ones who can stay on District Court and can continue to listen. She listens," says Annapolis lawyer Gill Cochran, a longtime friend.

A Chestertown native and Annapolis resident, Rasin graduated from Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., in 1969.

She landed a position with Bruce C. Bereano, who hired her as a legal secretary and nudged her toward law school.

Bereano brought her into his law practice after she received a law degree from the University of Baltimore in 1981. He was the king of State House lobbyists at the time, but Rasin did no lobbying. Rather, Bereano said, her professionalism, grace and wins captivated clients.

In 1987, she opened her own law practice. A Republican who won favor with some Democrats, she was whisked away two years later when then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed her to the District Court for Anne Arundel County.

In 1996, chief Judge Robert C. Murphy gave her one of the most powerful judicial jobs, naming her the second chief in the history of the District Court.

While her tenure was marked by strides in mediation, court security and domestic violence cases, it also was pocked by friction. She clashed with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley over court reform, and there was speculation that she and Bell disagreed. Bell says the two always worked through their differences and that he counted her as a key adviser, and Rasin says that in her many talks with the state's top jurist, he never asked her to step down.

But Rasin, the daughter of a lawyer and cousin of two Circuit Court judges, one current and one retired, decided she missed being a trial judge.

She doesn't regret leaving an administrative post to return to hearing cases - even on a recent day, when the litigants and witness started arguing all at once, and she held up her hands and said, "Stop. No fighting."

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