Criminal defense lawyers feared a chilling effect on judges, while women's rights advocates celebrated the announcement last week that a Baltimore County judge will have a public disciplinary hearing on his comments in sentencing a trucker who killed an unfaithful wife.
The Commission on Judicial Disabilities has scheduled an Oct. 30 hearing on charges of improper conduct by Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill Sr., who last year sentenced Kenneth L. Peacock to 18 months of work release after a guilty plea to manslaughter.
In a written response, Judge Cahill said the remarks were taken out of context. He denied saying that he understood or excused Peacock's shooting his wife because the defendant found her in bed with another man.
The hearing will be set up like a trial, with a prosecution case presented by the commission's new investigative counsel and rebuttal by the judge's attorneys.
But no one knows exactly what to expect, because the hearing will be the first of its kind under new commission rules stemming from criticism of the panel's secrecy and slowness in responding to complaints about judges.
"The commission members are not going to be discussing the case -- because we are hearing the matter," said Baltimore County Circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe, who heads the commission and is its only returning member. "It is new, and because it is new and we're operating under new rules, it's imperative that if there's anything that is not clear, that we get clarification before we act."
"It's going to be an interesting hearing: This is the first," said Christyne Neff, president-elect of the Women's Law Center Inc., advocates for rights of women under Maryland law. "That's what the process needed, the light of day in terms of complaints and how they're resolved. We understand not all will get to a hearing, but when one is serious enough -- as this one was -- it requires a public hearing."
Similarly, Dorothy Lennig, director of the domestic violence legal clinic at the House of Ruth, said, "This is what we'd hoped the new commission would be . . . a commission that has some teeth, that can sort out the bad complaints from the valid ones."
"I don't think people realize the impact of the bench," she said. "When they say something in an off-handed way, if they say something sexist, people walk out feeling that that's the way the system is."
But defense lawyer David B. Irwin, who represented Peacock, praised Judge Cahill. "I just think it's very sad that he's being lambasted for a few out-of-context remarks. I honestly believe after this hearing, that he'll be vindicated."
As for the effect of the charges on other judges, Mr. Irwin said, "I think it certainly is true within the defense bar that this has been a concern: that judges, like any other human beings, would feel severe pressure, especially regarding certain types of cases -- specifically domestic violence cases."
Richard M. Karceski said he knows, from 20-plus years as a criminal defense attorney, "that some judges are definitely acutely aware of the media."
"This whole process, I think, is a bit unfortunate, that he has to undergo this kind of public scrutiny," he said. "I think it's unfair. It just shouldn't be happening. His being charged isn't going to affect Bob Cahill, but other judges may feel this chilling effect."