Source:   Baltimore Sun sunspot  

                   Judge defends judiciary after O'Malley criticism

                            By Thomas W. Waldron
                            Sun Staff

                    The chief judge of Maryland's District Court defended her role in
                    efforts to reform Baltimore's court system, labeling recent criticisms
                    by Mayor Martin O'Malley as "offensive."

                    "The implication is that judges don't care about Baltimore City," a
                    clearly piqued Judge Martha F. Rasin told a Senate subcommittee
                    yesterday in Annapolis. "I take offense at that. We care about the city
                    as much, if not more, than other people."

                    Rasin was responding to biting comments O'Malley has made in
                    Annapolis and Baltimore in recent weeks questioning the judges'
                    commitment to major reform.

                    O'Malley also upset top judges this week with the release of his plan to
                    overhaul the city court system -- a plan that included stick figures
                    designed to show his idea in the simplest of terms.

                    The mayor is hoping to substantially change the way the beleaguered
                    court system operates, with the goal to dispose of half of all criminal
                    cases within 24 hours to allow the system to give more attention to the
                    most serious ones.

                    In particular, O'Malley has been at odds with Rasin and other top
                    judges over their reluctance to open a courtroom in the city's central
                    booking facility up to seven days a week.

                    But Rasin told the subcommittee that O'Malley's reform plan lacked
                    important details. She said the mayor does not define which cases are
                    "trivial" and worthy of quick resolution.

                    "If someone breaks into your car, that is not a trivial case to you,"
                    Rasin said.

                    Rasin told legislators that it's not the judiciary's place to embrace the
                    mayor's "zero-tolerance" crime-control efforts. Rather, she said, judges
                    are charged with giving every defendant a fair hearing in an impartial

                    "I'm worried about people's rights. I'm worried about our integrity,"
                    Rasin said. "I can't say that I will accept pleas in 50 percent of the

                    "We need to find a use for that courtroom so it's not public safety's
                    courtroom or the mayor's courtroom," Rasin added. "It's the District
                    Court's courtroom."

                    After yesterday's three-hour hearing, key legislators said they had little
                    sympathy for Rasin and other top judges in the state, noting that
                    O'Malley is trying to shake up a system with many problems.

                    "She has misread the political urgency of this," said Sen. Gloria G.
                    Lawlah, a Prince George's County Democrat who heads the budget
                    subcommittee. "We all do some grandstanding, but it's going to take
                    this to bring these two together."

                    Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Senate budget
                    committee and a strong O'Malley supporter during last year's mayoral
                    election, concurred.

                    "Too bad," said Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, when told about
                    Rasin's comments. "We can't have such thin skins. Everybody's at
                    fault in this one.

                    "The mayor may have been intemperate, but he was speaking for the
                    people, who are feeling intemperate," Hoffman said.

                    The General Assembly has withheld nearly $9 million from the budgets
                    of the judiciary and other public safety agencies as a way to force
                    their cooperation in reform efforts in Baltimore.

                    That money may be released in coming weeks, legislators said, but the
                    Assembly will likely put restrictions on the judiciary's budget for next
                    year to ensure further cooperation.

                    Legislators are considering giving all parties involved in court reform
                    until Sept. 1 to develop a firm plan for expanding the operation of the
                    courtroom at the central booking facility.

                    "I think [the deadline is] a marvelous idea," Rasin said. "I think it needs
                    to come off dead center."

                    But O'Malley said studying the issue until September was not

                    "It's more of the same," O'Malley said. "I think there's a greater
                    urgency than that."

                    Rasin is not alone in raising questions about O'Malley's plan. LaMont
                    W. Flanagan, the commissioner of state pretrial detention and services
                    who oversees the city jail, said he, too, has questions.

                    In particular, Flanagan said he worries about a part of the plan that
                    appears to diminish the role of court commissioners, who often free
                    defendants on their own recognizance soon after their arrest.

                    Flanagan said he feared that under the mayor's plan, many defendants
                    could spend more time in jail waiting to see a judge instead of a

                    Sun staff writer Caitlin Francke contributed to this article.

                    Originally published on Mar 1 2000