Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Judge or First Lady?

We can count on the Baltimore Sun to publish a fawning piece on Katie O'Malley every few years.  How she raises her children while being both judge and mayor's wife ...how she does it as the governor's wife...with continuing installments to come.

Quick answer:  she's got plenty of help, including being driven to work in a big, gas-guzzling Chevy Suburban, and having a job that gives her lots of free time.  For example, at Central Booking last week Judge O'Malley arrived one day at 9:20, had no work until 11:00, spent less than two hours on the bench, and was done for the day. It's a great gig.

The latest Sun puff piece (March 5) paints Katie O'Malley as one who "fights for those on the outside."   The evidence, aside from the puffery, centers on one real issue: the gay-marriage bill, drafted by her husband the governor.  Her "fight" boiled down to one speech.

But oh, what a speech.  Made to a national gathering of gay rights advocates, in the middle of a local political debate over her husband's bill, O'Malley called legislators who had changed their minds about voting for the bill "cowards," making it crystal clear that she was engaging in "partisan political activity" that is prohibited by judicial ethics. 

Katie O'Malley is every bit as politically ambitious as her husband, reveling in her role as First Lady.  And that's her right.  But not when she is also a judge.  That job comes with restrictions, namely, her duty to remain impartial.  She can't use "equal rights" as a cover for wading into political debate.  She certainly can't expect anybody accused of beating up a gay person to anticipate a fair hearing or sentence from her.

O'Malley became a judge when her husband became mayor of Baltimore, even though she was deemed unqualified just one year before.  That's how the system works.  But O'Malley holds her judgeship dearly to define her own identity and achievement.  When word reached her that a prosecutor had referred to her in an internal e-mail as "the mayor's wife" she called him up and chewed him out.

Yet when she was assigned to Early Disposition Court, the program her husband had promised would cure the criminal justice system, she revealed her lack of independence.  In meetings to address the court's problems, having zero experience both as a judge and in Early Disposition Court, O'Malley rudely dismissed any idea that the program might be too conceptually flawed to work.  (It was and it failed.) 

O'Malley wants it both ways.  When she apologized for her political speech, it wasn't for violating her ethical duty to avoid partisan politics.  It was for hurting people's feelings, while insisting that she would never "back away and say I don't support equal rights for all our citizens."

She never should have said anything from which to back away.  As a judge, O'Malley should demonstrate her commitment to equal rights in her courtroom decisions, not on the  national political stage her husband created.  She should have been doing her judicial duty on the bench the day the gay-marriage bill was signed.  Instead another judge covered for her while she was photographed in Annapolis, basking in the accolades by supporters of her speech. 

As for that speech, Katie O'Malley's use of the word "cowards" is particularly ironic since Martin O'Malley was not nearly so courageous about gay marriage before Governor Andrew Cuomo took the lead on the issue in New York last year.  After Cuomo's success, Martin used the issue this year to get himself all over the national news and talk show programs.  Ambition, not courage, drives Martin as he continues to lift his national profile.  Eventually Katie's will follow, too.

But Katie's support for gay marriage or any other political issue, whether it stems from political or personal motivations, has no place in the public forum while she sits on the bench.  If she wants to get out there and mix it up, that's fine.  But she will have to choose which job she wants more, First Lady or judge, because a politically active First Lady cannot also sit impartially in judgment of others. 


  1. Wow! It's like you read my mind. When I saw Mrs. O'Malley standing behind her husband at the bill signing on gay marriage I was stunned.

  2. I agree with you that the O'Malleys are motivated by ambition and not a call to serve, which makes it all the more surprising that Katie would be so careless as to create even the appearance of impropriety. However, I think that there is a large and growing number of people in this country who don't see gay marriage as a political issue any longer. To them, it has become a human rights issue, and as I understand it, judges are not barred from making public statements regarding human rights.

    Clearly, we disagree about whether this is a political issue or a human rights issue, but if it is the latter, is Katie still obligated to remain silent?

    1. The word "political" has different connotations. My intent in this piece was to use it in the sense of political give and take, the process by which we create laws. Human rights issues go through this political process, too, as culture and viewpoints (and legal protections) evolve. We are the midst of evolving viewpoints on gay rights issues, debating and creating new and controversial laws. A person who wants to be a judge must stay out of the controversy, and out of the role of an advocate. That's the quid pro quo for the job. Judges will be called upon to interpret the evolving laws, and must be seen as impartial arbiters of those laws.

  3. Her use of "cowards" was improper-- she needs to be above name-calling, as a judge or as a first lady. I wonder how much she gets paid vs how many hours she spends on the bench? She should not be getting paid as a judge while she's hovering behind her husband.