Monday, February 22, 2010

A Wink and a Nod

originally published April 3, 2009

I was wrong about the timing but right about the anticipated result. Judge Askew W. Gatewood, Jr., convicted of dumping construction debris into state protected wetlands without a permit, was reprimanded by the Commission on Judicial Disabilities on April Fool’s Day. How appropriate.

Gatewood has made a fool of the system by living on his Anne Arundel County estate instead of in Baltimore city where he presides as a District Court judge. (See A Judge Above the Law.) He has made a fool of it by running a real estate business which takes him into court as a plaintiff and attorney, even though he is supposed be devoting full time to his judicial duties. (It must be pretty weird for his colleagues to see him walking into their courtrooms.)

And now the Commission on Judicial Disabilities has made a fool of itself by doing nothing about his criminal conviction.

If Judge Gatewood was an average joe that would be one thing. Everyone makes “mistakes”, though this was no mistake. He dumped debris into the water along his estate after hurricane damage, violating a dozen environmental criminal laws including polluting the water, illegal dumping, and clearing land without a permit. He plea-bargained the case to filling wetlands without a permit, which avoided the possibility of a jail sentence. Not that he was going to jail anyway, but the plea bargain allowed him to argue later that it was just a technical offense.

It wasn’t. Gatewood knew he needed a permit because he had properly repaired his shoreline after a prior hurricane, according to court records. This time he decided to illegally extend his shoreline farther out than before using inappropriate materials, no matter what the cost to the wetlands and the ecosystem. He was convicted in June 2008 with the assurance that his conviction would be wiped out if he cleaned up the mess. State officials told the court that it could be cleaned up by the fall of 2008. His lawyer assured the court that “no one is more anxious than Mr. Gatewood to get this work underway.” Yet electronic court records show that his conviction still stands.

Gatewood is a judge, entrusted with the highest responsibility to citizens of this state. Yet he has weaved his judicial life around the spirit of the law, and then was caught violating the letter of the law. He should be held to a higher standard. With what credibility does he apply the law to others? None.

But the Judicial Disabilities Commission felt otherwise. They gave him a paltry sanction, a private reprimand. Ho hum.

The only thing that really prompts the Judicial Disabilities Commission to act is when a judge fails to display the kind of charm towards it that Gatewood possesses in abundance. For example, Judge Bruce S. Lamdin of the Baltimore County District Court was brought up before the Commission because of persistently inappropriate comments he made in court, not because he broke any law. Commission members were going to reprimand him, but they didn’t like the arrogance he showed when he appeared before them. So Lamdin was suspended for 30 days.

Let’s see…inappropriate remarks and arrogance before the Commission, 30-day suspension. Committing a crime, a wink and a nod.

Judges are given awesome powers, including immunity for the judicial decisions that they make. They are not immune for inappropriate personal conduct, however. Yet as the Gatewood case demonstrates, there’s a lack of meaningful accountability for judicial misbehavior. Their jobs are treated as ordinary jobs would be, not as a special job for special people.

Judicial appointments are already too politicized. (See The Politics of Picking Judges.) Together with the lack of accountability for misbehavior, citizens are stuck with mediocrity and even miscreants. If quality and justice doesn’t start at the top, there isn’t much reason to expect it in Maryland courtrooms.

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