Maryland State Bar Assn.: Judges require greater protection | READER COMMENTARY

Maryland State Bar Assn.: Judges require greater protection | READER COMMENTARY

The crux of The Baltimore Sun’s recent editorial, “Keeping Maryland judges safe shouldn’t require lessening transparency” (Dec. 6), suggests the murder of a Circuit Court Judge in his driveway is not a sufficient basis to withhold the home addresses of certain public officials, including judges, from public records. The Maryland State Bar Association, the voice of the legal profession, and the Maryland Chapter of the Federal Bar Association are compelled to respond.

MSBA and FBA-Maryland believe in the freedom of the press and responsible journalism. However, when measures can be implemented to protect the lives of public servants, such measures should be subject only to the limitation that they are carefully drawn to protect the public servant without interfering with the rights of others.

What makes the violent example noted by the Baltimore Sun Editorial Board so outrageous is that it occurred at the judge’s home. Core legal principles recognize the sanctity of the home and how it should be the ultimate place of safety and rest for an individual. In this case, Judge Andrew Wilkinson was violently murdered in his driveway in Hagerstown with his family members inside the home. This is a tragedy that illustrates the danger of violence by unhappy litigants against judges and the need for action. If legislation shielding the address and phone numbers of our judges will provide some level of protection, it should be enacted.

The Sun fails to acknowledge the multitude of threats faced by Maryland state and federal judges, attorneys and courthouse personnel on a routine basis, including: surveillance and targeting of judges by gang groups, suspicious packages delivered to judges’ residences or chambers, stalking at judges’ residences, protesting outside judges’ residences, bringing in weapons and suspicious packages into courthouses (including over 5,000 knives and over 100 firearms seized by District Court security in 2022).

In 2022 alone, the District Court security team assisted local law enforcement with seven credible threats to district court judges across the state. In addition, in 2022, two Baltimore County District Courthouses were attacked with gunshots and Molotov cocktails. Judge Wilkinson’s tragic death represents an evolving and escalating level of violence targeting Maryland’s judicial officers. It is an escalation that calls for immediate action.

As noted, MSBA and FBA-Maryland agree with the freedom of the press and transparency; however, The Sun fails to balance its transparency comments against the real threats outlined above. While the preservation of the privacy of a judge’s address or home phone number could create an inconvenience to investigative journalists, it will not make such investigations impossible. Indeed, the proposed Maryland legislation from 2023 (SB 221) does not create a “cloak of secrecy” but rather, is appropriately balanced to support the safety of judges and their families while recognizing the need for judicial transparency.

Additionally, the state of Maryland has safeguards in place including the Judicial Ethics Committee and the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities to monitor and regulate judicial behavior. The latter is an independent body with the power to investigate complaints and purported misconduct. Nothing in the proposed bill would limit the power of these organizations to investigate judicial conduct.

As for the speculative and unsubstantiated hypothetical that the shielding of home addresses and phone numbers will somehow act to cover up extraordinary acts of bribery, The Sun does not even track with the proposed legislation. Indeed, past addresses are not protected under the language of the bill, only current residences and phone numbers.

Ultimately, the editorial fails to acknowledge how the multitude and escalation of recent threats and actual acts of violence perpetrated against our judges negatively impact the judicial process, a cornerstone of our democracy. A judicial officer must be neutral, detached and free from danger in the dispensing of justice. This can only be achieved if judges are safe in their own homes.

— Raphael J. Santini and Ezra S. Gollogly

The writers are, respectively, president-elect of the Maryland State Bar Association and president of the Maryland Chapter of the Federal Bar Association. 

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