Source:  Baltimore Sun Sunspot

                    Top judge holds court
                    Bell: Known for his brilliant legal mind and his eloquence, the state's
                    top jurist found himself at the center of a controversy over the city
                    court system.

                    HIS credentials are impressive. First, he went from Harvard Law
                    School to Piper & Marbury. Then he worked his way up through the
                    judicial ranks from District Court to Baltimore Circuit Court to the
                    Court of Special Appeals. Then, in 1996, he became the state's top
                    judicial officer when he was named Chief Judge of the Court of
                    Appeals of Maryland after sitting on the state's highest court for
                    about five years.

                    Meet Robert M. Bell, a civil rights pioneer who in 1960, when he
                    was just 16 years old, struck a blow at segregation by walking into a
                    Baltimore restaurant and asking to be served. Bell's conviction for
                    trespassing sparked a legal battle that went all the way to the U.S.
                    Supreme Court.

                    Bell's friends say he has a brilliant legal mind and a silver tongue. But,
                    recently the state's top judge has found himself in much the same fix
                    as Albert Belle, the Orioles' mercurial slugger, who draws boos from
                    some fans no matter what he does.

                    Bell and Chief District Judge Martha Rasin drew heat after they
                    resisted a push to have a full-time district judge assigned to the city's
                    Central Booking and Intake Center. Baltimore Mayor Martin
                    O'Malley maintains that the judge is a necessary "reform" that will
                    prevent clogging in the courts.

                    Bell says the plan needed study by the Criminal Justice Coordinating
                    Council, which forged an agreement that could put a judge in place
                    by July 1. Bell says the process worked just as it should have, and he
                    doesn't understand why he was cast as an "ogre." Reforms? Actually,
                    none was made, Bell says. The Circuit Court's problems were being
                    addressed, and the District Court was working fine. Bell shared his
                    views during an interview with Perspective Editor Mike Adams.

                    Baltimore's court system has been stung by disclosures that cases
                    were bungled, defendants in murder cases walked free because they
                    didn't get speedy trials, and the mandatory sentence law was not
                    being enforced for gun crimes. Have these problems been fixed?

                    A number of those problems are not really judicial issues. We are a
                    part of the criminal justice system, we're not the head of it; we don't
                    control every aspect of it.

                    Let me go back to 1998 when there were revelations about the
                    dismissal of cases for the lack of a speedy trial, and there was an
                    issue about how backlogged the system was. And there was a

                    In my Jan. 26, 1999, State of the Judiciary Address, I spoke about
                    the backlog and the the speedy trial situation in Baltimore City. I
                    outlined what was going to be done to correct that situation. Judge
                    [David B.] Mitchell, chief of the criminal docket, had a very definite
                    plan to change the culture that created the postponement problem. It
                    had to do with re-instituting the move list, it had to do with putting
                    into play four retired judges who would work on the oldest cases
                    first to reduce the backlog. It had to do with centralizing the
                    arraignment process because one of the problems was that we had
                    decentralized it. Every court was doing arraignments, as opposed to
                    one or two, which had been the way it was done in the past. We got
                    a handle on that situation very quickly. I thought it was necessary that
                    there be cooperation and coordination among the various members
                    and aspects of the criminal justice system. That gave rise to the
                    reinstitution of that coordinating council which has been in place since
                    February or March of last year.

                    The backlog situation is well in check. The postponements were
                    dramatically down. The cases in the system had been reduced
                    tremendously. We were able to dispose of more cases in 1999 that
                    had been filed by the prosecutor. That was the first time that had
                    been done since 1995 or 1996.

                    Is there room for improvement? Of course. But we're trying to do
                    justice and not just dispose of cases arbitrarily just to get rid of them.
                    We've got to make sure that the process is not just fair, but it
                    appears to be fair as well.

                    Charging is not a judicial function, that is a prosecutorial function.
                    You will not find any case where a judge has refused to impose a
                    mandatory sentence that has been properly requested and notice
                    given of. If a judge doesn't do that, that judge is subject to having
                    that decision reversed.

                    On Wednesday, a jury acquitted three men whose murder case
                    came to symbolize all that's wrong with the city Circuit Court. The
                    case was dismissed last year when a judge ruled that three years of
                    postponements had denied the defendants a right to a speedy trial
                    under state law. Then the decision was reversed, and they were
                    retried, but one witness recanted, one died and evidence got lost.
                    What would you say to the family of the victim, Shawn L. Suggs?

                    First, my heart goes out to the family of Mr. Suggs. I am impressed
                    with the reaction of Mr. Suggs' father; it is a very healty one, indeed.
                    To him, I reiterate that the Circuit Court has done much already to
                    ensure that cases proceed to trial more quickly, that the requirements
                    of the rule and statute governing the speedy trial of cases are met.
                    Having said that, we must be careful not to condemn the entire
                    criminal justice system, or characterize its health, on the basis of the
                    outcome of one case.

                    Cases like this case occur every so often, unfortunately, and when
                    they do, they provide wake-up calls, a point of assessment, requiring
                    us to rethink our approach. That is exactly what happened in this
                    case. The result in this case at the trial level, whether right or wrong,
                    focused our attention on whether there was a need for a different
                    approach, and perhaps additional resources, to be devoted to the
                    resolution of criminal cases in the city courts.

                    It appears that Mayor O'Malley has been successful in his campaign
                    to get a full-time judge in central booking. Will that help the situation
                    in Circuit Court ?

                    I can only tell you what I've been told and what I've read. And the
                    theory is that you get rid of "minor cases," however you define those,
                    and that then frees up judges to try the more serious cases and give
                    more time and attention. I don't know what the impact will be at the
                    circuit level.

                    I do know that the issue of whether the judge ought to be there is an
                    issue that was determined by a process that we have always favored,
                    that we've always asked to be followed. Well, that process is the
                    coordinating council process.

                    From its inception, a Circuit Court judge has been assigned to
                    [Central Booking]. In March of 1999, we agreed to put a District
                    Court judge there two days. Now, they handled some very limited
                    matters at Central Booking. There were some pleas, but not a whole
                    lot of them. But during that year, that [District Court judge's]
                    presence expanded to four days. ... The judge was not there eight
                    hours a day, of course, because there was not a caseload to keep
                    the judge there. ...

                    The first reason a [District Court judge] was put in Central Booking
                    was to reduce bed days [incarceration time]. Reducing bed days
                    saves the corrections system money. ... [O'Malley's plan] does not
                    relate to reducing bed days as much as disposing of cases. There's
                    been a shift, and that's all the more reason why you have to think
                    about what you're doing.

                    Speed is fine, but that's not all there is to a process. There has to be
                    due process. ... We cannot be perceived as being a part of any other
                    part of the system other than the judiciary. And the judiciary is an
                    independent branch of government. Our purpose is to ensure that the
                    process is fair, that the people receive what the Constitution
                    promises. So to the extent that anybody says we are obstructionists,
                    it's because we have a constitutional imperative to do what we do.
                    We cannot just jump on the bandwagon or do what is politically

                    If this expedited process is to work efficiently, it almost certainly
                    means that many defendants will have to plead guilty in return for
                    plea bargains. Do you see that as a potential threat to the due
                    process you want to protect?

                    Judges have a responsibility to ensure that what they do or the
                    decisions they make don't shock their own consciences. I'm satisfied
                    that our judges will accept only those agreements that they feel
                    comport with ... and they're going to do it in such a way to ensure
                    that the person is not being pressured, that the person is acting
                    voluntarily, and that's what the Constitution provides for.

                    Is there a chance that people might be enticed, rather than pressured,
                    into taking a plea bargain? It might make sense for them to plead
                    guilty in exchange for a slap on the wrist for something they didn't do
                    rather than fighting the charge.

                    That's a danger. But that's what the process of qualifying that person
                    is all about, making sure that the person's plea is freely and
                    voluntarily given. That's the purpose of making sure that there is
                    some statement that justifies the plea itself. You can't just say, "I
                    plead guilty." There must be some dialogue between the judge and
                    this person, or the lawyer and this person, which demonstrates to the
                    judge that this person is acting freely and voluntarily without being
                    coerced. In addition, you must have a factual basis for the plea. Only
                    if those things coalesce will the judge accept the plea. ... I know our
                    judges won't feel pressured into making a deal simply because, at the
                    end of the day, you're going to end up with X amount of people

                    The public perception is that there was foot-dragging concerning the
                    decision to put a District Court judge in Central Booking five days a
                    week. True?

                    I cannot and will not, nor will [Judge Rasin] or any other judge, have
                    someone put on the table an outline, and say, "we ought to do thus
                    and so," and then we will just accept that without looking into it,
                    without investigating it, without thinking about it, without looking at it
                    in its fuller context and its impact on what we do, how we do it and
                    why we do it. That's what we were doing.

                    I don't think anybody can legitimately accuse the judiciary of being
                    uncooperative. We are extremely cooperative. ... But we will not
                    accept blindly an idea, called "reform" or called anything else, until
                    we are satisfied that it does, in fact, fit within the construct which is
                    our justice system, and it is something we can legitimately do and still
                    fulfill the obligations placed upon us by the Constitution.

                    Yes, the process worked, because what happened was, the point
                    that was made was, send this idea through the coordinating council.
                    That's what I told Mayor O'Malley from the very beginning, that's
                    what Judge Rasin said to him and that's what has happened. When
                    the issue was presented to the coordinating council, a subcommitte
                    was set up to look at this idea, and despite the fact that we never
                    really received any detailed plans, that subcommitte was able to look
                    at what was intended and come up with something that makes some

                    When somebody says, "I've got a plan, accept it," that's not
                    cooperation. That's called mandating something. And the judiciary
                    cannot be mandated to do things when it has not been demonstrated
                    to be the appropriate thing to do consistent with our mission.

                    When Mayor O'Malley presented his proposal that included stick
                    figures, was the problem that it lacked details?

                    That was the issue. I understand what the concept is, but how does it
                    work was really the key piece of it. So, we were looking for
                    something more than a concept; we were looking for a plan.

                    What was your reaction to the stick figures?

                    I'm not going to get into that. I'm not going to get into that. I'm really
                    not going to get into that. You will recall I never commented on it one
                    way or another, and I'm not going to start commenting on it now.

                    You say the judiciary was always willing to cooperate, and you made
                    that known. Yet, on Feb. 11 O'Malley asked state legislators to
                    withhold money for the city courts because they were "dysfunctional"
                    and the system was clogged, it just didn't work. What was your
                    reaction to that? Did you have any idea that was coming?

                    No. In fact, I was there that day, having been called to report on the
                    progress we'd made on the backlog, the trial delay issue. ... And we
                    did that, and those reports showed tremendous progress. In fact,
                    that's what I reported to them, and I pointed out some of the
                    progress that was made.

                    So, we were very happy with the progress that had been made. And
                    then to hear that was a little bit disconcerting, particularly because
                    this concept had been presented to the council for discussion two
                    days before. And at that point, a subcommittee had already been
                    appointed. So, it was never our decision not to consider the concept.

                    I was a little bit disappointed that [O'Malley's call to withhold money
                    from the city courts] happened within that time frame without there
                    having been an opportunity for the process to work. What I got was
                    the impression that cooperation is not what was being asked for; it
                    was something else. We were supposed to blindly adopt something.

                    What was there to adopt if the mayor did not have a plan, just a

                    That's my point. We were supposed to go on board without knowing
                    how this concept would work, or even having the details of how it
                    would work. ... I guess when you get right down to it, this last
                    episode demonstrates the danger of politicizing an issue.

                    Nobody wants the process to work less than efficiently, but the
                    people who can make it work are those people who are on the
                    ground, who work with it every day, and if they are allowed to
                    address their own problems without the glare of the media or without
                    having politicians looking over their shoulders, I think we would see a
                    lot more progress being made. We won't hear about it, but we don't
                    need to hear about it. If progress is being made and the system is
                    more efficient, I think we're all better off.

                    Does the move to expedite cases at Central Booking have more to
                    do with the zero tolerance policing that Mayor O'Malley favors than
                    addressing an existing problem? The police will be making more
                    arrests, and those cases will need to be moved through the court

                    I can't say that. I don't know ... nor is that really important to me.
                    The truth of the matter is that the judiciary has got to respond to
                    whatever the executive does in terms of creating the cases. The
                    philosophy that underlies it is not something that I feel equipped at
                    this point to talk about.

                    Is the system dysfunctional?

                    The fact that somebody can talk about dysfunctional systems doesn't
                    do very much to change the system. It is what you do once you sit
                    down and focus in on it that makes the difference.

                    I haven't seen any figures showing a dysfunctional system yet. I
                    haven't seen the figures that show the clogged system. I can
                    appreciate that there is a way to improve the processing of cases, but
                    I am not prepared to admit that we have a dysfunctional system. I
                    have never been prepared to admit that we have a dysfunctional
                    system, particularly since we've been able to put together, at the
                    Circuit Court level, where the real focus was, we were able to put
                    together a course of action that resulted in dramatic decreases in
                    those problem areas.

                    I have heard a lot of people say "dysfunction." I've heard a lot of
                    folks talk about clogged, but I haven't seen any cases or any
                    demonstration, by those folks who say it's dysfunctional, why it's

                    But you conceded earlier that there were problems in the Circuit

                    Oh, sure, I have no trouble with that. In fact, we can always improve
                    the system. Every case that's in your system does not make it a
                    backlog. There are a certain number of cases that you must have;
                    that's your inventory. And only at some level do you meet the
                    clogged level. We have been reducing the cases awaiting trial. We
                    have reduced the postponements, we've got a a handle on our
                    caseload. Now that's at the circuit level. The district level is now
                    what's being focused on as being clogged, being dysfunctional, I

                    I don't have any statistics showing that the District Court is not
                    disposing of their cases in a reasonably timely fashion. We've had
                    some problems with traffic cases years ago, but that's been dealt
                    with. But I hear "dysfunction" and I hear "clogged," but I have not
                    seen the statistics that show me where the dysfunction is and where
                    the clogging is.

                    How did the problem in Circuit Court arise?

                    Mismanagement. ... We had slipped into a situation where
                    postponements were being granted almost for any cause. ... When I
                    was on the Circuit Court, we had a move list. Instead of granting a
                    postponement in cases that were older, you put the case on the move
                    list so it could move to the courts right away. But in order to be
                    effective, you had to have a move list that was manageable, 10 or 15
                    cases. We'd gotten to the point where the move list had huge
                    numbers. It really did not mean anything.

                   Originally published on Mar 19 2000