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September 2, 2014

Judges: Wisdom for the Ages

Harry M. Covert

Regard for the judiciary has always ranked high in this aerie. Those in such lofty positions are truly esteemed and provide keys to the very words of honesty and veracity, reason enough to address them as “Your Honor.” They indeed represent the highest in rectitude, righteousness and decency.


Responsibility given those on the benches of courtrooms – criminal, civil, traffic, domestic relations and juvenile – is probably above all other public positions providing quality cities and towns, counties and states.


Within 63 days or 5,443,200 seconds from today, voters in Frederick County will make a choice for a Circuit Court judge. That judgeships should be in the electoral process has never been considered a good thing by this columnist. They are above that process. School board members fall into this category, too.


It is beneath the dignity of a state court judge to have to find votes to remain on the bench after appointment by the governor or General Assembly. This won’t be popular I’m sure, but school boards and school superintendents should be appointed by the elected boards of commissioners or county councils. The latter has to fund the schools and should have a say in just what is taught and built. This can be expanded at a later day.


Usually judges in all divisions are nominated by local bars – not saloons, of course. Nominations go to the governor who puts the stamp of approval on the candidate, usually with a wink and nod from political leaders.


My experience with judges and courtrooms goes back a long time. It was more fun covering court cases than big time sports events or political activities. Judges have a tough and vital job. Often they must have the Wisdom of Solomon of the Old Testament, lots of common sense and, most of all, know the law.


Law schools in Maryland, Virginia and elsewhere are not similar to correspondence courses on how to draw, how to shoot straight, how to make a million bucks in real estate, or how to win friends and influence people.


There are two men in Frederick’s circuit court judgeship. I have not met either; but, on the surface, the incumbent judge of Maryland’s Sixth Judicial Circuit, has established his judicial acumen since January. Judge Danny B. O’Connor’s record has been outstanding. His challenger is a veteran Frederick lawyer, television actor and prosecutor, Scott Rolle.


I’ve never covered trials in the Frederick courts. I should. I have reported on incidents where a defendant expectorated (spat, i.e.) on His Honor’s face. The “spitter” was going to the state road gang anyway and further penalty ignored.


During a murder trial on the circuit court level, a defendant punched his attorney, knocking him out. The deputy standing beside the slugger instantly employed a choke hold and the offender passed out.


A woman judge sentenced a burglar to jail. A few days later she received a note asking if she’d dine with him when his jail time was completed.


A Virginia case involved a domestic matter where the fisherman husband and wife got into drinking fights. Trying to be helpful, the judge suggested the next time hubby comes home in a fighting mood, wait until he passes out and then hit him with a frying pan. The unorthodox advice had a large courtroom chuckle. But, a few weeks later, the missus was charged with maiming the beater, requiring some 12 stitches.


Another case involved the wife of a soldier in a war zone. She had written some NSF checks (non-sufficient funds). She couldn’t make restitution or pay the fines. The judge, leaned over to his bailiff, and had him collect a few dollars from every attorney and onlookers. Enough was accumulated and the military mother went home. A few weeks later the military man was brought home and payback was prompt.


It’s not all fun-and-games in the judiciary. It’s serious business handling murderers, robbers, carjackers, con-men and con-women, drug sellers and users and cheaters of all sorts.


Despite what some courtroom participants may think, movie and courtroom judges aren’t amused or abused by misbehavior and threats, nor should they.


Once In my courtroom work, looking for something good and juicy to write, I sat in my “usual” jury box seat as permitted by my familiar judge. This particular day I had not been informed a visiting judge would be sitting. With newspaper and notebook in hand, I sat down. “Just who do you think you are?” Hizzoner bellowed. Mortified I told him my name and newspaper. I learned instantly he furiously disliked our journal. I was banished to the back of the courtroom.


I sat quietly, waiting for the clerk to call the next case. “You can’t read the paper in my court. Bring it here.” I had to walk to the bench in front of all the snickering people, figuring he’d tell me to give it to the clerk. Instead, he wanted the paper for himself. Really, he just wasn’t a subscriber because the paper endorsed someone else in years past instead of him.


I feel certain decorum in Frederick’s courts is always sedate. With Judge O’Connor handling the gavel, it always will be.


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