What began as a matter of a few hundred dollars in restitution from a teenager who shot a bunch of marbles with his paintball gun into a car has exploded into a request for a panel of Anne Arundel County judges to condemn their colleague's handling of the case.
Lawyers from around the state, including Maryland's chief public defender and officers of a criminal defense lawyers group, have lined up behind Annapolis attorney G. Andrew Cochran and against Circuit Judge Paul G. Goetzke, whose election last November on a tough-on-crime stance rankled many in the local defense bar.
Calling Goetzke's actions "unconscionable" and "intimidating" to lawyers whose role is to advocate for their clients, attorney Laura M. Robinson asked the three-judge panel Monday to not only reverse Goetzke's decision, but to take the highly unusual step of publicly condemning him for what she called "an assault on the proper administration of justice."
In March, Cochran's case was bound for an agreement in juvenile court that included his teenage client paying $500 for car repairs and doing 64 hours of community service. But a juvenile master's report must be approved by a judge.
Goetzke increased the amount to $750 to include $250 for the victim's time and inconvenience. Cochran protested and sought a hearing, saying that Goetzke could not increase the repayment without evidence and a hearing from those involved. In June, after a hearing on Cochran's request, Goetzke denied Cochran's motion and slapped $10 fines on Cochran and the youth.
"It's $10 now. What's it going to be next time, $1,000?" Cochran said after Monday's hearing.
It's unclear why Goetzke imposed the fine, but he faulted Cochran on several points, and said Cochran overstated the teenager's role in raising his infant son. (The Sun does not identify juveniles accused of crimes.)
On Monday, Assistant State's Attorney Sandra Foy Howell, who prosecuted the case, said that in March, the victim wanted to be compensated for lost wages, but lacked documentation to support a claim.
Master Erica J. Wolfe recommended the community service instead, Howell said.
Howell did not tell that to Goetzke, nor is it part of Wolfe's report. Goetzke had excused Howell from attending Cochran's courtroom plea for the hearing.
As the case involving him was heard by the panel of judges, Goetzke was hearing a child support dispute.
Later, Goetzke declined to talk about Cochran's case. He said he has long known and liked Cochran and his family. He described his judicial philosophy this way:
"If a victim suffers $1,000 in property damage, but has to go through the inconvenience of coming to court and taking time off from work and getting his property repaired, a court should be entitled to take that in consideration in awarding restitution."
Cochran's lawyer told the panel that that philosophy misses the key issues.
A victim can be compensated for lost wages, but not without proof of the loss, Robinson said.
And the law does not allow payment for inconvenience and aggravation.
It does, Robinson said, provide for a judge dissatisfied with the juvenile court master's recommendation to either hold a hearing or return the case to the juvenile master - and at least one judge in the county routinely holds such hearings. Goetzke did neither before increasing the amount of restitution.
Some of the lawyers crowding the courtroom expressed alarm at what they say was Goetzke acting contrary to the law and then going after the lawyer who challenged him. Nancy S. Forster, the state's top public defender and president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, said she was concerned about what appeared to be "vindictiveness." She said a huge concern is that Goetzke will continue to bypass the legal process to increase restitution by juvenile offenders. Lawyers say he has done so in other cases.
In a letter, the district public defender for Anne Arundel County, Brian C. Denton, called Goetzke a "bully" for imposing the sanction. The county public defender's office routinely asks him to step aside from hearing criminal matters, arguing unsuccessfully that his campaign platform means he cannot be impartial.
The panel did not say when it will rule.