A Howard County circuit judge whose remarks from the bench have long raised eyebrows crossed the line when he told a black criminal defendant that "people moved out here" to escape from people like him in the city, the state's highest court ruled yesterday.
The Court of Appeals erased an 18-year prison sentence handed down by Judge James B. Dudley and returned the case to Howard County for resentencing by a different judge.
At a time of increasing sensitivity to bias in sentencing, the case raised questions of how far a judge can go in railing against society's ills and using what people might interpret as racial code words.
The judges said whether remarks by Dudley, who is white, were based on a belief that the defendant was "from the city" or sprang from racial bias, they were not acceptable. They said they would assume that Dudley was not motivated by racial bias, but recognized that "his statements could give rise to an inference that race was inappropriately considered at sentencing."
Judge Dale R. Cathell wrote for the unanimous court: "Simply stated, it is not permissible to base the severity of sentencing on where people live, have lived, or where they were raised."
Dudley could not be reached yesterday. In earlier interviews with The Sun about the case, he said, "Obviously, if I had to do it over again, I wouldn't use the words." He said sentencing is often the only time a judge can speak about society's woes, and he expressed concern that more people would be angry about what he said than about what the defendant did.
In sentencing Valentino Maurice Jackson in 1999 for assault with a short-barreled shotgun, Dudley said that Columbia has attracted people who "live and act like they're living in a ghetto somewhere. And they weren't invited out here to [behave] like animals."
Nancy Forster, the chief of the appellate division of the Office of the Public Defender, argued the case before the Court of Appeals last month.
"Because those were such charged statements and code words, I think it was easy for the Court of Appeals to make this decision," she said. "I think it tells judges that the Court of Appeals won't tolerate comments that appear racially motivated, even if they actually aren't."
The judges expressed concern about public perception of fair treatment in the courts, and said that while they do not know what motivated Dudley's sentence, they believed his words would call his impartiality into question.
Legal experts cautioned against reading too much into the ruling. They considered it a warning to judges to stick to the nature of the crime and the background of the defendant during sentencing.
The 16-page ruling does not break new legal ground. It relies on more than three decades of federal and state court rules and judicial opinions saying that judges cannot use criteria such as race, national origin or gender when determining a sentence.
"It is very important that judges not only act impartially, but that the public believes that they act impartially, and that the judges only consider those things that are proper and relevant to their decision-making," said William L. Reynolds, professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "Or in other words: Loose lips sink sentences."
Jackson's sentence fell squarely within state guidelines of 15 to 25 years for his crime, and he could get an identical sentence when the case returns to Howard's courts.
"Obviously, the Maryland Court of Appeals felt it was in very bad taste and shows a certain bias," said Abraham Dash, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.
The court record does not say which city Dudley thought Jackson, now 33, came from. The judges presumed he meant Baltimore, though nothing in the transcript indicates the defendant lived in Maryland's largest city. He was born in Brooklyn and had lived in Columbia for 13 years.
Outspoken on the bench
Dudley found himself in hot water a few years ago over comments he made in sexual-assault cases.
After one, in which Dudley suggested a rape might have been avoided if the victim had exercised "reasonable judgment with respect to her previous beating" by the defendant, the Women's Law Center of Maryland filed a complaint with a state committee set up to address gender bias in the court system.
At the time, Dudley said he was making an observation, not assessing blame. He said nothing came of the complaint.