Having been born and raised in York, PA to a white mother and black father, most of the “racism” I experienced as a young child was the result of not being considered “black enough” for the friends of my black friends and an object for inspection or not light enough for the friends of my white friends. It was fine, and I never took offense to being called an Oreo cookie. I knew it to be the way that OTHER PEOPLE needed to project their own stuff in order to be okay with who THEY were inside. Once in high school, its’ face changed when my guidance counselor told me (despite my honor society status each and every semester since middle school) that instead of looking at college the best I could hope for in life would be to marry a military man. It was then that I became aware of overt racism that exists that many of us must contend with. It was then that my family moved to Howard County, MD because of its’ unofficial moniker of being a great big racial melting pot.
Life was great in high school in the Maryland county that seemed to have no issue whatsoever about high school kids of one race dating and going to the prom with kids of a different race. Kids from DC were attending my high school in order to get the great education that Howard County is known for (still is), and risked the fear of penalty from non-resident enrollment in order to experience what my father used to call “the bubble effect of Columbia”. Having experienced racism of the 50s and 60s, my father was not so convinced that what he was supposedly seeing in Columbia was reality. He had his reasons. He would be pleased to read that my naivety was skeptically offset by my father’s insistence that I would one day be shocked to learn that my ideals of life were not what I was going to encounter “out in the real world”. As is typical for my age, I rebuffed his advice, convinced that I knew a different world that was materially different than the one he knew.
My naivety, even in adult years, was in thinking that I knew what the real world was.
Knowing is sometimes relative, because it may depend on your actual exposure to things. Up until a few years ago, the most I had seen inside of a courtroom were for traffic tickets, piddly small claims grievances I filed, and hearings for a custody suit that was ultimately settled without trial. Having considered a profession in law, I had the utmost respect for the law, the process and the judges who get the honor and privilege to preside over and decide the future course for people and companies. The law, is the law, right? Where would society be if citizens didn’t have access to, know and be able to count on laws to be able to guide their behavior and understand (if not accept) consequences for illegal behaviors?
Up until a few months ago, I would have never wondered if Freddie Gray would have received a fair trial here in Maryland. I unflinchingly accepted the wisdom, integrity and ethics of police officers and judges back then. Those stories about Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and many others getting sorely needed media attention, have cured me of the blind faith that I used to have. And the increased incidences of judges gone wild have left many appalled and outraged. The latest one to hit mainstream is HERE. When a person has the responsibility of presiding over a dispute between parties, it’s an assumption that a judge will be impartial, unbiased, and fair. When you get confirmation that they overstepped their bounds, it is reasonable to wonder why and to make inquiry that is necessary in order to get the facts. The opposite of unflinching acceptance is skeptical inquiry, and it often isn’t desired but it is natural.
Maryland judges enjoy a huge amount of unfettered discretion to do as they want without inquiry. The entity that handles complaints regarding Maryland judges is the Commission on Judicial Disabilities, and the information about the number of complaints it receives and investigates each year can be found on their website found HERE. The numbers for the past 3 fiscal years show that relative to the amount of complaints received, a miniscule percentage of them lead to anything. Not a large percentage of actions taken against judges, but we are talking about judges after all. It would seem that the Commission is extremely slow/reluctant to reprimand, with some of the outcomes taking a year or two from the time they were first filed. See HERE
The number of cases that typically remain open at the end of fiscal years has been consistent, and a little troubling considering the impact that judges have on their communities. Here are the numbers for the past few reports:
Fiscal Yr # of files opened for “verified complaints” # still open end of fiscal
2014 137 74
2013 139 47
2012 132 42
Almost a third to one half of the complaints received in any fiscal year are still left open by the time the next cycle of complaints start coming in. With only two people having the task of being investigative counsel for these complaints, one wonders if they have enough staff to adequately serve the public’s needs? No financial information is provided to the public regarding their operations, and in very limited circumstances are the details concerning judges released to the public. It’s interesting that in many if not most of the reprimand information that is made to the public, it is done “with consent of the judge”. It’s also interesting to note that their address is the SAME as the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission, and that’s gotta be awkward to have those activities going on in the same building. Judges are attorneys after all. They also have an extremely small staff compared to that of Attorney Grievance. FOUR people total, two attorneys, one executive secretary and one administrative assistant. Granted, there are fewer judges than attorneys in Maryland. People don’t like to piss off judges since they can summon you into a courthouse at their sole discretion. But does that mean people don’t have the right to ask questions and make their own inquiries about them?
A recent Maryland Court of Special Appeals case centered around the public’s ability to see and know the disciplinary history and details of police officers. A majority opinion held that internal investigation records are exempt from disclosure under Maryland’s Public Information Act, even when the investigation into the officer bore fruit and resulted in department action. Carl Snowden, associated with the Caucus of African American Leaders, said it best that apparently: “..the public does not have a right to know what the discipline was..” This despite the fact that a police officer is a public servant, paid with public funds, entrusted with the duty to protect and serve the public. A great argument can be made that the same should apply for judges, but until that day comes, citizens should use whatever resources they can to learn about the judges that they will or have encountered. You could be surprised by what you find, like I was.
In 1996, the then-Governor Paris Glendening appointed the first black female circuit court judge in Howard County, Donna Staton. The Governor did so with the express purpose of trying to put some much needed diversity onto the bench, partly with pressure from a coalition that represented 50 organizations that referred to themselves as the Howard County African-American Coalition. He also appointed Judge Leasure, a Caucasian female. Staton had her judgeship for less than a year until it was time for elections that would have placed someone into the slot for a 15 year term if done so by voters. Judge Lenore Gelfman couldn’t understand why she was passed up for the appointment (after having lobbied hard for it to the Governor) and was reportedly upset by it. Her response was to launch “an all-out slugfest” that was “Howard’s nastiest, most expensive..political battle” (Sun 1996). It gets worse.
Gelfman picked a running mate who was a Republican. But as it got closer to the election, prospective voters reported getting phone calls that were allegedly representing “Howard County Democrats” only, the Howard County Democratic Central committee had endorsed the Staton/Leasure ticket. One article (click HERE) quoted the campaign’s consultant who claimed that half of the phone calls were made by an out of town firm that he wouldn’t identify. The slugfest was reportedly so nasty that people questioned what it was really about, and some concluded that it was race. There’s a nice writeup about how race was thought to impact the race, and it can be found HERE. A “racial tone” of Gelfman’s campaign literature was the precipitating factor in complaints filed by the Howard County African American Coalition. The year was just 1996.
A visit to the Howard County Board of Elections to view the campaign finance disclosures revealed the name of that out of town firm, easily found because of the large dollar amounts written on checks to them. A search on the firm revealed that it wasn’t the first time (or election) that they had done antics that sought to deliberately mislead voters, or that involved race. It was a Pennsylvania firm, and they got cited for it because it dealt with race in a misleading and unethical way. I read somewhere that Staton took the high road and didn’t ask any questions or make a fuss about a potential race issue. While I am sure that she was a great judge and is a great attorney, I’m not sure that looking the other way and hoping something isn’t what it looks like is the best position to take for societal advancement. At least not the society that I want for myself and the people I love. I don’t want to live in a community where race and creed are publicly showcased and flaunted (or chastised) as if they are bargaining chips which only the kindred type can benefit from. Can you imagine someone of color campaigning that they are the first and only African American judge on our Circuit Court? Evidently, though it breaks the rules, it is not sanctioned…unless it’s different when it comes to being Jewish in Maryland? See the next CAMPAIGN
I will say that I understand those who WANT to believe that we are far beyond those days that my father told me about when race was a prime consideration for too many things. I spent much of my life wanting to believe the same. But when you try to find answers for WHY something is happening or someone is doing what they are, you pay attention to what they are telling you AND find out what they aren’t. Judges are humans and do make mistakes, but if they insist in perpetuating mistakes as if they don’t believe that they made one, then you must look to other possible reasons for their actions. The same goes for derogatory and malicious statements made or signed by judges who are sworn to uphold civility for the communities that they serve. Civility is degraded when judges overstep their authority, play favorites instead of consulting the actual laws, and fail to do their duties that prevent citizens from having to take extraordinary measures for what should be common sense when it comes to the law.
This isn’t the first story or blog post about institutional racism, how racism affects systems that service communities, or how public trust and confidence in government systems is eroded by blatantly obvious misdeeds of public servants whom have forgotten that their professional purpose is to serve the public’s best interest instead of their own and to the best of their ability. This is meant to be a contribution to the ongoing dialogue here in Maryland and around the country about the things that are wrong and need to be changed with what is sometimes the way things have always been done. And with election season approaching, I hope more people pay attention to the differences between what people SAY they are doing, and what they actually ARE doing, as opposed to simply pulling down levers for what may be superficial reasons. The minister of my church always tells us that when they are not in alignment, you must look to the person’s character for answers. Some people’s character takes them down, and when it’s a public servant, it’s the citizens who pay the price ultimately.
There are African American attorneys in Maryland who have told me that they are appalled but not surprised that the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission failed originally to initiate an inquiry into the documented actions of the attorney profiled elsewhere on this site (click HERE). The first question I am usually asked when discussing her actions is “Is she Jewish?” Those attorneys who took the time to speak to me reported that they are ALWAYS asked to answer inquiries regarding complaints, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant. They reported that many are scared of the Commission because it has the ability to shut down an attorney’s practice during the investigation if it chooses. They also reported that many in what is known as “the black bar” have been wishing for years to do something about the obvious inequalities that they see and experience in the Maryland legal community, but feel powerless to do anything because they are certain there will be financial repercussions of doing so (regardless of them prevailing). All said that it’s just the way things are here in Maryland.
Fortunately, the Court of Special Appeals hears cases with more than one judge presiding over them. I respect those judges, because you can easily glean from their webcasts of proceedings that they actually do read the materials they are given and obviously take their time deliberating on things in a way that lower court judges in Maryland sometimes confess to not doing. It is unfortunate that many don’t have the ability or knowledge that they can appeal decisions by lower courts to the upper ones. The time spent deliberating and researching law before making decisions seems to be different there, and it will be a welcomed change. Majority decision rules in higher courts, and I respect that one in that Court of Special Appeals decision regarding the public’s right to police records in Maryland because it was based on the interpretation of conflicting Maryland law regarding a police officer’s right to privacy that was enacted. Maybe more people will become involved in the legislative process to reverse what the citizens say they don’t want. Justices Shirley Watts and Clayton Greene Jr., the two African American judges, dissented from the Court of Special Appeals opinion. Watts in particular cited the need to maintain “..the public’s trust in law enforcement” by “..honoring the public’s right to know how law enforcement agencies respond to misconduct..”. See story HERE If only they weren’t in the minority in the highest court here in Maryland (literally and figuratively).
This is not the Maryland that I thought I was living in for all of these years. And it would appear that for 30 years I have been remiss in failing to say these words: Dad, you were right! Not going to act like race isn’t a factor in things: why would I with the people involved?
P.S. To the African American Maryland attorneys who so desperately wanted to voice their concerns and thoughts and have been wishing for a way to surface to do so… I hope this helps!
P.S.S. To the judges of the Court of Special Appeals: You do phenomenal work with taking actions with the things that ARE brought before you that deal with things that undermine the public’s confidence in the legal system. Have heard more than one of you say that deceit in discovery responses and in court filings as well as candor to the court is paramount to that public confidence, and that once deceit as intentionality is found, jurisprudence mandates what must happen.