In an unusual public hearing before a state judicial disciplinary board, women's groups yesterday criticized as sexist Judge Robert E. Cahill's comments in sentencing a Parkton wife-killer in 1994.
With just as much certainty, judges and law professors, including one woman, said the comments were appropriate and did not show sexism or disrespect for the law.
The first day of the Judicial Disabilities Commission's hearing -- which could determine whether the Baltimore County judge remains on the bench -- examined comments made at the sentencing of Kenneth L. Peacock. The trucker, who shot his wife hours after returning home to find her in bed with another man, had pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
When the judge sentenced him to 18 months' work release, he said that it was difficult to sentence a "noncriminal," that he could not imagine someone in Mr. Peacock's position not imposing some type of corporal punishment and that he could sentence in anonymity because the courtroom had few people in it.
The hearing marks the second time that a Maryland judge's conduct has been reviewed in a public hearing. The seven-member commission will decide whether the comments were inappropriate and whether the judge showed gender bias, failed to avoid the appearance of impropriety or failed to act in a manner that promotes public confidence.
"The task at hand [is] to discern what he meant and what his words communicated," the commission's investigative counsel, Christopher J. Romano, said in opening statements. The comments violate judicial ethics, he said, adding that judges are not permitted to make remarks that "manifest bias or prejudice in a courtroom at any time."
Representatives of the Women's Action Coalition, the Select Committee on Gender Equality, the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence and the Baltimore Women's Bar Association testified that they sent letters or circulated petitions criticizing the judge's remarks as sexist. Some of the groups have male members.
When asked during a break why he did not call other witnesses, Mr. Romano replied, "I presented what evidence I felt was relevant to establish the charges."
In his opening statement, H. Thomas Howell, one of Judge Cahill's attorneys, said the comments were made "in good faith, without any malice [or] gender bias." Taken in context they were not improper, and the commission should not apply "the worst possible spin," he said.
The defense also called former Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney Michael G. DeHaven, who handled the plea arrangement for the state, and David B. Irwin, who defended Mr. Peacock. Both testified that they did not notice any inappropriate comments, sexism or disrespect for the law.
A female court reporter who recorded the sentencing and Judith R. Catterton, a Montgomery County attorney and professor of law, also testified that they did not perceive any sexism or impropriety. And several judges testified that the comments were responses to prosecutor's remarks or explanations of the sentencing decision.
The courtroom was packed as the hearing opened for Judge Cahill, 64, a father of five who has been on the bench since 1989. With his family seated behind him, the judge watched the testimony.
Defense attorneys expect to complete their case today after calling another law professor and Judge Cahill to testify.