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DOJ, Baltimore and consent decree judge mull how to hear from public

David Ralph, Interim City Solicitor, left, and Glenn Marrow, Chief, Office of Legal Affairs for the Baltimore Police Department, arrive at the federal courthouse for a hearing on the city's consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department.
David Ralph, Interim City Solicitor, left, and Glenn Marrow, Chief, Office of Legal Affairs for the Baltimore Police Department, arrive at the federal courthouse for a hearing on the city's consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

After a three-hour hearing in open court on the proposed consent decree between the city of Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar advised both parties to meet him in his chambers for another, private discussion.

The topic: public input.

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They'd all agreed during the hearing that Bredar should hear from residents before making his decision on whether to approve the police reform agreement, but hadn't nailed down the process.

By Thursday, it remained unclear. No new court documents had been posted in the case, and a court spokesman declined to comment on the private meeting.

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But it's likely, based on what was said in court, that residents will have two distinct opportunities to comment on the deal: once in written form, and once in person.

That was far from assured before Wednesday's hearing.

In a letter Bredar wrote to both parties beforehand to prepare them for questions, he'd suggested he wasn't sure the court had the authority to "entertain" such input from "non-parties" to the case.

At the hearing, Bredar reiterated some of his concerns, saying he is "all in favor of transparency," but wondered whether the court would be granting local residents standing in the case if he allowed them to voice their concerns.

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"What's their standing to be heard?" he asked. "I mean, we're in a lawsuit here."

Timothy Mygatt, the Justice Department's deputy chief of special litigation for civil rights, said the "quick answer" was that "there is no standing." In other cities, outside groups have tried to gain standing by filing motions to intervene, and such attempts could be made in Baltimore, too, he said.

But allowing the public to voice concerns in a less formal way is different — and appropriate, he said. It would allow the public "to have confidence in the process moving forward," he said.

David Ralph, the acting city solicitor, said the city and the Justice Department had for months been collecting input from residents, and had brought that input "to the negotiating table." It would be appropriate for Bredar to hear from the public, too, Ralph said.

Would that input be evidence in the case, Bredar asked?

It would not, Ralph said, but it could give Bredar "a more holistic view" of the concerns that exist in the city. Mygatt agreed.

"That's not the discipline we ordinarily employ," Bredar said. But he also said he understood "on a gut level" why public input was important.

Bredar then said he would need both sides to agree, on the record, that if the court accepts input from the public, he would be free to factor that input into his decisions in the case.

Mygatt, Ralph and Glenn Marrow, chief of the Police Department's legal affairs division, all agreed.

How will it work? Bredar asked.

Mygatt said the court could accept written submissions, or hold a "first come, first served" public hearing where residents could speak. Ralph said the city would prefer the first option, because it would be "more orderly." Marrow agreed.

Bredar mulled the options briefly, then said he'd like to do both.

"I think we should do this," he said. "It's just a matter of mechanics."

There would have to be some parameters, he said, such as a registration before the public hearing.

"It isn't just going to be an open mic situation," he said.

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