Bad judgment

December 27, 2005

Maryland operates a judicial institute that trains new judges and offers continuing education classes for veteran jurists. But Prince George's County District Judge Richard A. Palumbo must have skipped out on the class on judicial demeanor when he joined the bench in 2001. His insensitivity to a woman involved in a domestic dispute in September doesn't appear to be an isolated incident. New complaints suggest he needs more than an attitude check - or a remedial class.

The 67-year-old judge was reassigned to administrative duties within weeks of his Sept. 19 decision to rescind a protective order for Yvette Cade, who, three weeks later, was critically burned, allegedly by her estranged husband. At the September hearing, Judge Palumbo displayed an "I know better" attitude about Ms. Cade's situation and ignored a list of grievances about her husband's troubling behavior.

The House of Ruth Domestic Violence Legal Clinic has now alleged that Judge Palumbo disparaged women in other cases, denied an immigrant an interpreter and, more alarming, made bad legal calls on previous requests for protective orders. The center's complaint to the Judicial Disabilities Commission seeks the judge's removal.

That's the harshest punishment, which is rarely meted out. In the year that ended last June, the commission handled about 84 complaints, which resulted in one reprimand and one warning. Judge Palumbo will get his chance to dispute the allegations against him. But in several celebrated cases in the late 1990s that involved disdainful comments about women, the panel issued less-than-satisfactory rulings. It dismissed a complaint against one Baltimore County judge accused of insensitivity against a murder victim and merely warned a second county judge who struck the criminal conviction of a batterer so he could join a country club. At that time, the panel publicly affirmed the importance of bringing these matters to it and, when necessary, discussing them in an open forum.

The Palumbo charges demand serious scrutiny. This is a judge who, in court, has likened the availability of women to the timing of buses: They come along every five minutes.

When judges are insensitive to victims of domestic violence, they give battered spouses another reason not to come forward. These victims shouldn't be humiliated by the very system charged with protecting them. Such behavior insults the victims and the integrity of the system. For the past 20 years, public health and women's rights activists have worked hard to get battered spouses to step forward, to seek help and to testify against their abusers. That campaign has paid off in increased reporting, expanded awareness and programs for victims and those who batter them.

Domestic violence victims who come forward deserve all the protection and respect that the law affords them. No more, but certainly no less.

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