Source:  The Baltimore Sun sunspot

                Judiciary defended by Rasin

                    Chief district judge finds comments by O'Malley `offensive'; `We care
                    about the city'; Panel hears response to mayor's call for major court
                    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 criticism 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

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

                    O'Malley also upset some 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 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

                    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. For example, 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

                    `People's rights'

                    "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 simply 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, chairman of the Senate budget committee
                    and a strong O'Malley supporter during last year's mayoral election,

                    "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.

                    Restrictions likely

                    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 come up with 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.

                    Court commissioners

                    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 actually spend more time in jail waiting to see a judge instead of
                    a commissioner.

                    In addition, Flanagan pointed out that expanding court hours at the
                    central booking facility would require increased security and more
                    state spending.

                    "I personally perceive the plan as a newborn child that has to be taught
                    how to walk and talk," Flanagan said.

                    O'Malley said he had no objection to ironing out the plan's specifics, as
                    long as it is done quickly.

                    "I'm not making light of operational details," the mayor said.

                    Sun staff writer Caitlin Francke contributed to this article.

                      Originally published on Mar 1 2000