Against a backdrop of criticism of Baltimore County judges for being insensitive to women victims, most of the state's 242 judges gathered yesterday in Towson for a two-day conference on family violence.
"I don't think it's any secret to anyone now that domestic violence is one of society's most serious problems," said Judge Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, in welcoming the group to the conference at the Sheraton North.
The program "should go a long way to educating each of us to the depth of the problem we are now confronting," Judge Murphy said.
As the judges broke for lunch, a few pickets from the Woman's Action Coalition and the National Organization for Women took up positions near the hotel.
They denounced Baltimore County Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill Sr. for an 18-month sentence for a Parkton trucker who killed his wife. At sentencing, the judge had said he could understand the man's rage at finding his wife with another man.
Their signs also referred to Judge Thomas J. Bollinger, whose offer of probation before judgment and sympathetic comments in sentencing a 44-year-old man convicted of raping a drunken 18-year-woman, provoked similar outcries last year.
"We're glad they're in sensitivity training," said Lisa Simeone of WAC. "It's an important first step, and we hope they learn from it."
"I'm here because I'm outraged at Judge Cahill's action and Judge Bollinger, and it goes on and on," said Frances Everett of NOW.
Both judges attended the conference. Judge Cahill avoided a crowd of reporters, but Judge Bollinger found himself pursued at a trot by lights and cameras.
Many of the judges talked between sessions about the uproar over Judge Cahill that has drawn national media attention, but none would comment publicly.
Howard County Circuit Court Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, an organizer of the conference, said it was planned well before the O. J. Simpson murder trial in California and "other matters in Maryland."
"We feel as judges we need to know as much as possible," Judge Sweeney said, noting a tendency in the past to treat what happened in families as a private matter.
"I think it's a sensitivity issue. I think it's hard for a lot of folks. It was hard for me when I went on the bench. You like to think that things between husband and wife . . . are private things, but
when violence is involved and people are getting hurt, you just can't do that."
Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of Baltimore Circuit Court, noted an increase in domestic violence cases there, which he attributed to economic stress.
Judge John J. Bishop Jr., of the Court of Special Appeals, called the conference "an excellent idea." He recalled working in the General Assembly in the 1970s for laws to protect abused spouses.
Many other judges from around the state shared horror stories from their dockets, agreeing that domestic violence is increasing.
The judges gave a standing ovation to yesterday's speaker, Sarah M. Buel, a domestic violence prosecutor in Massachusetts who escaped an abusive marriage.
Delivering a mass of facts and figures, she urged the judges to "take off the rooftop. . . . Sometimes it's hard to be open, to leave your egos at the door and say, 'I still have a lot to learn.' "
She asked them to imagine "a terrorist assigned to each of you, to follow you night and day, to clean out your bank account, who knows all your friends and family.
"You need to hear me: Leaving does not mean safety," she said. "Stop blaming the victim. . . . Stop asking, 'Why do they stay?' "
After a court appearance, she said, victims "can always tell me what the judge says . . . no matter how brief.
"Your words have an enormous impact."