Monday, February 22, 2010

A Judge Above the Law

originally published October 6, 2008

If my guess is correct, sometime this month we should find out what, if anything, the Commission on Judicial Disabilities is going to do about Baltimore District Judge Askew W. Gatewood, Jr.

Gatewood is the judge convicted this past summer of illegally dumping tons of construction debris in the water around his Pasadena home without any regard for the law or the environment. First he was sued by the state and Anne Arundel County. Then the Attorney General’s Office (which employs Gatewood’s daughter) belatedly took action after urging from Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, filing criminal charges last January.

When police officers are charged with crimes, they are suspended from work. When judges are charged, well, it is business as usual. They continue to sit in judgment on others who face criminal charges. Even after they are convicted, they still get to decide who else committed—or didn’t commit—crimes.

I have never been a fan of the Commission on Judicial Disabilities. Not that those who serve on it aren’t fine people, but nothing much happens to judges who misbehave.

First, judges get to keep hearing cases while the Commission decides what to do, which is no fault of the Commission since it has no power to suspend anybody. I asked Gatewood’s superiors, Baltimore’s Administrative Judge Keith E. Mathews and state Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn why they didn’t take Gatewood off criminal cases. The response from their Annapolis spokesperson was, “Given the nature of the charges, Administrative Judge Mathews did not deem it necessary to reassign Judge Gatewood from the criminal docket…”

So it was no big deal, just a little old white collar crime. (Mathews, by the way, was once a law partner of Gatewood.) Given that attitude from top judges, what can we expect from the Judicial Disabilities Commission? They may issue a reprimand, but that’s a sanction for another era, when reprimands brought shame and humiliation. In our increasingly shameless society, what effect does it have?

As I have written before, judges must be protected in the exercise of their discretion. But I see no reason to protect them from misbehavior, especially when that misbehavior would have prevented them from being appointed in the first place. If anything, it becomes especially important to assure the public that those passing judgment on them are themselves without bias and without contempt for the law.

Gatewood deliberately and consciously violated the law. A man who has bought, sold and rented real estate since the late 1970s knew all about the permits and licenses he should have sought before he trashed the coastline. As a judge he even convicted people for polluting water. In 1999 the Attorney General’s Office issued a press release publicizing the sentence Gatewood gave a Baltimore man for dumping contaminated waste water into a sanitary sewer, presumably to deter others from similar activity. Nine years later they had to prosecute the judge.

Gatewood has been skirting not just the law but the Maryland Constitution for a long time. The Constitution requires judges to devote “full time” to their judicial duties. Gatewood, who makes his judge job as part-time as possible by arriving late and cutting out early, has grown wealthy through the real estate business he has run during his decades as judge. He has even presided over housing cases in a city where he is a landlord, and got himself in the news once for chiding city housing officials over how they handled a subsidized housing program—a program he himself participated in as a landlord.

Conflict of interest? Bias? The very perceptions the Constitution no doubt sought to avoid.

The Constitution also requires judges to reside where they preside. But it’s well known that Gatewood, a Baltimore judge, moved to Anne Arundel County long ago, where he lives on a gated estate in the Riveria Beach section of Pasadena. He created the appearance of a city home but that’s all it is, an appearance. Maryland’s highest court has given the definition of residency a very liberal (and in some respects questionable) interpretation, but Gatewood pushes the limit of even those rulings. It probably wouldn’t take much to expose the sham, if anyone cared to. He has thumbed his nose at the Maryland Constitution he took an oath to uphold, using a sleight of hand that is extremely unbecoming for a member of the bench. (See below for how much just the public land records can tell us.)

We can have no confidence that Gatewood applies the law fairly, impartially, with sound judgment. It is ridiculous to treat him as “first offender” deserving of a second chance to keep his job. He is a mature, educated man serving as a judge who thought he was above the law or could get away with ignoring it. In a city where confidence in the criminal justice system is wobbly at best, his lack of credibility undermines it further.

But my opinion doesn’t count. Let’s see what the Commission on Judicial Disabilities has to say.

Where Does Judge Gatewood Really Live?

Askew W. Gatewood, Jr., a Baltimore city judge, purchased 8401 Bay Road in the Riveria Beach section of Pasadena, Maryland for $143,000 in December 1990. He immediately took out a $300,000 construction loan (which he paid off less than four years later) according to land records. It is a big, beautiful home on a point of land jutting into the junction of Stoney Creek and the Patapsco River, from which he commutes to work in the city every day. And oh, it’s in Anne Arundel County. Gatewood is required to live in the Baltimore City.

In May 1994, months before he was due to be reappointed to his second 10-year term as a judge, Gatewood and a woman named Edith E. Coleman paid $69,000 for 3515 Wabash Avenue, a modest townhouse near Mondawmin Mall in the city. Gatewood made this his “official” address. They purchased it from Monumental Realty Corporation (MRC), which was formed in 1986 by Michael B. Mitchell of Mitchell, Mitchell and Mitchell, where Gatewood had once been an associate attorney. (Yes, it’s that Mitchell family.)

In 1995 Gatewood filed a change of resident agent for MRC, listing himself as the new resident agent with an address of 3515 Wabash Avenue. (Later he filed documents listing himself as president of MRC.) However, according to the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation, the mailing address for MRC is not Wabash Avenue but P.O. Box 411, Pasadena, MD.

Gatewood took out at least two loans on his Bay Road property. In 2004, Gatewood used the property as collateral for a loan to MRC in the amount of $1,500,000. The deed of trust listed Gatewood’s address as 8401 Bay Road, Pasadena, as did the financing statement.

In 2007 Gatewood used the property to secure a loan to a new company he formed in 2006, Stoneypoint Development Limited Liability Company (Stoneypoint). This time he borrowed $3,500,000. Stoneypoint’s “principal offices” are at 3515 Wabash Avenue, just like MRC. But Gatewood’s address was listed this time in the deed as P.O. Box 411, Pasadena, the same mailing address listed with the state for both Stoneypoint and MRC. So while the two real estate companies have their “principal offices” at 3515 Wabash, Gatewood picks up their mail in Pasadena.

Meanwhile, Coleman borrowed nearly $57,000 on 3515 Wabash in 2002. Her name was typed onto the Deed of Trust as the borrower. Gatewood’s name was written in by hand, as though someone had forgotten there was another owner. However, when the Deed of Trust was formally corrected, only Coleman was listed and only Coleman signed. Last year, Gatewood and Coleman added Gatewood’s daughter, Nichole, to the deed.

Gatewood votes in Baltimore City using the 3515 Wabash Avenue address, though the records don’t show what addresses he used prior to 1995. No doubt he uses 3515 Wabash for his income tax returns and other official government filings, and might even use it for his Mercedes Benzs despite the city insurance rates. He listed Wabash as his address in 1997 when he applied for a patent for a disposable mousetrap.

But he doesn’t live there. He doesn’t do his business there. Gatewood bought, renovated and moved into a multi-million dollar estate on the water in Anne Arundel County, then acquired himself an official city address so he could stay a city judge.

It’s about as pretty a picture of a judge honoring the law as the tons of construction debris lining the shore of Riviera Beach.

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