Bad judgment

Our view: Judge playing Cupid on the bench made a mockery of domestic violence

March 19, 2010

Judges are required to make all sorts of decisions from the bench, many of which have life-altering consequences for the parties before them. But rarely are judges tempted to play the role of Cupid in domestic disputes. That crosses a line where jurists should fear to tread.

Yet Baltimore County Judge G. Darrell Russell Jr. apparently felt no compunction about wading into matters of the heart where his court had no business. Confronted with a domestic violence case in which the alleged perpetrator sought to evade conviction by marrying his victim, the judge was only too happy to oblige. Not only did he briefly postpone the trial so the defendant could get a marriage license, he presided over the nuptials himself in chambers a few hours later.

You probably can guess what happened next. When the trial resumed, the bride -- for reasons we may never know -- invoked her spousal privilege and refused to testify against her husband. As a result, the charges were dropped and the groom left the courthouse a free man.

There's a good reason the law in Maryland -- as well as many other states -- allows prosecutors to press charges in cases of suspected domestic abuse even when the apparent victim doesn't want them to. Victims are often in no condition physically or emotionally to confront their abusers in court. They may fear retaliation, or they may continue to believe promises that the abuser will change, no matter how many times they're broken.

We have no way of knowing the emotional state of the woman in this case, but it's at least possible that she may have felt intimidated by the mere presence of her alleged abuser in court and fearful of what he might do if her testimony sent him to jail. It's likely he had already pressured her not to testify. Judge Russell's offer of a quick marriage to solve her dilemma may only have increased the pressure on her to remain silent.

How could the judge not realize such an extraordinary intervention from the bench was bound to color the victim's perception of what kind of justice she could expect from the court, or that it flew in the face of the crucial protections the law was intended to provide? Judges may see themselves as possessed of the wisdom of Solomon, but it's precisely in cases such as this that the law should act as a check on judicial overreaching.

Clearly that did not happen in this case. The defendant's request for a postponement so he could obtain a marriage license should immediately have set off alarm bells for Judge Russell. But instead, he leapt to the defense of the alleged abuser and crudely joked afterward that he had "sentenced" him to "life married to her." In fact, she may be the one serving the sentence.

County Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn was right to immediately reassign Judge Russell to paperwork duty on civil cases after learning of the incident, but the matter cannot be allowed to end there. Judge Russell showed appallingly poor judgment and insensitivity in this case, rendering it almost impossible to imagine him ever serving as a fair arbiter of justice in cases of domestic abuse. Advocates for battered women were right to question whether he has the temperament to be a judge at all. At the very least, the public needs to know he will never be presiding over domestic violence cases again.

Readers respond

Judge Russell shouldn't have authority over any civil cases, on paper or not, after this incident.

NotableM

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