Benefits of a full court press

May 15, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

I went to the District Court of Maryland, Towson branch, because that's where I was told I'd find Judge Bruce Lamdin - in Courtroom 4. But Judge Lamdin wasn't in Courtroom 4, at least not during the morning docket. He wasn't in Courtroom 5 or Courtroom 6, either. He wasn't in Courtroom 1, Courtroom 2 or Courtroom 3. He wasn't in the men's room - and I went in there three times looking for him.

I never found the judge with the potty mouth.

I saw Judges Robert Steinberg, Nancy Purpura, Jan Alexander and Norman Stone, all doing their duty, all very professional and efficient, and polite. I never saw Judge Lamdin.

But that's OK. I had a good time just the same, especially in Judge Steinberg's courtroom.

He found, in rapid order, most of 40 people not guilty of traffic violations, because the police officer who had given them citations failed to appear, and without explanation. "The verdict is not guilty, you may leave, God bless you," the judge said repeatedly as each defendant turned and strutted toward the doors.

I never saw so many happy defendants in one courtroom; they were like fourth-graders on the last day of school.

Before I left the now-empty courtroom, I asked Judge Steinberg if he knew where Judge Lamdin was, and he held out his hands and shrugged, and I took that as "No comment."

Doesn't matter. It was nice to visit District Court again. I hadn't been in a while.

Once upon a time, reporters from The Evening Sun and the News-American visited the local District Courts every day. This was known as "making the rounds" in the time of Baltimore's afternoon papers. On a daily basis, reporters poked around the District Courts, which were for many years attached to city police districts. A door swung this way or that, breezily connecting law enforcement with the adjacent chamber of criminal justice. There was a strange intimacy and chumminess about the whole scene; a citizen easily could have regarded the presiding judge as an agent of the police.

That has changed.

The courts (and the judges) have been extricated from the police districts - and that's a good thing. The News-American is 22 years gone, and The Evening Sun 13 - not a good thing - and the District Courts dockets just don't get the regular coverage they used to.

Not even the weekly papers cover them much, and the TV stations visit only when, for initial appearances and bail reviews of defendants in major criminal cases, the district courts present a perp-walk video op.

Do we miss stories because of this?

Yes, sometimes.

Is the system sufficiently monitored?

Not in my opinion.

Is this why Bruce Lamdin felt free to regularly use language sufficiently profane, insensitive and inappropriate to get himself suspended for a month without pay?

I wonder about that, but conclude: Nah. I think some judges do behave differently when reporters are about.

In this case, the fact that reporters were not a regular presence in the District Court of Baltimore County - never, in Lamdin's six years as a judge - might have made him less conscious of propriety. But it's hard to believe, based on the utterances that got him into trouble, that the mere presence of a scribe would have put Lamdin on his best behavior. Chances are he still would have practiced his dopey brand of humor anyway.

On the up side: Judges are better these days; there are fewer political hacks among them. Citizens are better educated, more sophisticated and more vigilant. They know a bum when they hear one.

The Lamdin matter started with a complaint from one defendant, in a traffic case, and led to others.

It is remarkable that the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities listened to audio recordings of nine months of hearings from courtrooms where Lamdin presided. That would never have happened in the old days, when the CJD was more inclined to look at each complaint in isolation and attribute inappropriate language to a judge's "having a bad day," or dismissed the matter as an irrational grievance of a defendant with an ax to grind.

One thing about the good old days: Even when reporters covered the District Courts on a regular basis, they let things slide. Had a judge back in the day said the kind of things Lamdin said, he would have provoked laughter and smirks, and little else.

The late Robert Sweeney, the reform-spirited jurist who served as chief judge of the Maryland District Court from its inception in 1971 until his retirement in 1996, once told me about a particularly bad judge he had been unable to remove from the bench, and Sweeney gave me the impression that had the local press paid more attention, that bad judge might have gotten bounced.

Times have changed. What was accepted practice back in the day is no longer tolerated, and this time the credit goes to the citizens who complained.

Bruce Lamdin begged for trouble. He went far beyond what I've heard from the most flippant judges over the years. In this age of the sarcastic talking head and the Limbauvian diatribe, he might have thought he could get away with some rhetorical stingers here and there.

But even the most politically incorrect citizen can distinguish a judge from a Comedy Central regular. A judge's inspiration should be Sandra Day O'Conor, not Andrew Dice Clay.

We hope Judge Lamdin has learned this lesson. We'll check when his 30-day suspension is up. Oh yeah, we'll be back.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks is the host of "Midday," noon to 2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, on 88.1 WYPR-FM.

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