Time to pay more attention to our judges

Outraged citizens need to know who's on the bench

August 01, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

We, the people of Maryland, don't know our judges. Judges know judges. Lawyers know judges. Police officers know the judges of the Maryland District Court and, to some degree, the judges of the Circuit Court. I suppose the governors know the judges they appoint.

But, for the most part, we don't know much about the judges who serve Baltimore and the counties of Maryland, though thousands of us have voted for dozens of them. It's time we paid more attention.

Judge John Addison Howard's name has been in the news this past week; he's the Baltimore Circuit Court judge who had dealt leniently with John Wagner, the man accused in last Sunday's stabbing death of Stephen Pitcairn in Charles Village.

The Baltimore Sun reported the other day that John Wagner went before Judge Howard at least four times since pleading guilty to a vicious assault on his then-girlfriend, in 2008. (Mr. Wagner got eight years in prison, but the sentence was suspended.)

Mr. Wagner was charged repeatedly with violating probation conditions to stay out of trouble, check in with a probation agent and attend anger management classes.

Judge Howard found Mr. Wagner guilty of violating his probation at least twice, The Sun reported, but never punished him. A review of the recording of an April court hearing revealed that prosecutors and probation agents had asked Judge Howard to give Mr. Wagner three years in prison. But that didn't happen.

This is what Gov. Martin O'Malley meant the other day when, in response to a reporter's question, he said Judge Howard, appointed to the bench in 2006 by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., had dropped the ball.

The judge has not said anything about his actions with regard to Mr. Wagner, though reporters asked him for comment and citizens have been expressing outrage.

Nor did Judge Howard speak publicly in May 2009 after Baltimore's police commissioner criticized him on a radio show for sentencing two men to two years each in prison for kidnapping and torturing two teenagers.

Judges rarely comment on the cases that come before them, containing their remarks to those uttered in court.

But earlier this year, my Sun colleague, Peter Hermann, asked Judge Howard about another case, in which he had dealt leniently with a young criminal who had been on probation when he abducted a man in front of his North Baltimore home.

Judge Howard explained that he had agreed to a plea deal between prosecutors and a public defender; had he rejected it, he said, the case would have been scheduled for trial on an already overcrowded docket.

"If I had to consider what somebody is going to think about this, that's not doing my job," Judge Howard said. "I have to go with the information I had when this was done. If I were provided with the benefit of hindsight, I'd bat 100 percent, and so would other judges.

"We're human," he added. "The system is operated by humans."

In March, Judge Howard sentenced a Baltimore man to life plus 93 years in prison for the rape of a middle-aged woman in her North Baltimore home. Quoting from the opening of the "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" television series, the part about sexual crimes being "especially heinous," Judge Howard said, "If there's a case that demonstrates the truth of that statement, it is this case."

It has not been the practice of The Sun — or any other local journal, from what I've seen — to independently gather information about judicial nominees or newly installed judges and present them to readers. When Robert Ehrlich followed the recommendation of a judicial nominating panel and appointed John Addison Howard in June 2006, The Sun merely noted that he had been "an associate at the firm of Sagal, Cassin, Filbert and Quasney, P.A., in Towson, specializing in state and local government cases, as well as real estate lawsuits."

The judge's resume appears on the Maryland state government website; it lists schools he attended, law firms where he worked, but not much about the kind of practice he had, or his views on criminal justice.

Two years after his appointment, Judge Howard ran for election to the Circuit Court, in accordance with state law. Of the more than 87,522 Baltimoreans who voted for him in the 2008 general election, I can't imagine that more than a few hundred of us knew anything about him or the other judges on the local ballots.

It's time we paid more attention.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. E-mail: dan.rodricks@baltsun.com. http://www.twitter.com/Midday.

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