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O'Malley hearing criminal cases, despite opinion from ethics panel


New Baltimore District Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley, whom a state ethics panel essentially discouraged from hearing most criminal cases because of her family ties, is now presiding over a criminal docket.

O'Malley was assigned to the criminal docket by Judge Keith E. Matthews, the District Court's administrative judge, who reversed the position he took last month, when he had said he would abide by the ethics panel's opinion.

That opinion, issued in December, said in part that O'Malley could have an appearance of partiality in the courtroom because she's married to the mayor and is the daughter of the state attorney general.

O'Malley asked the nine-member ethics panel late last month to modify its opinion, and requested an audience with its members. The committee has not yet answered.

Committee Chairwoman Charlotte M. Cooksey, a district judge, was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

Matthews, who had "strongly" urged O'Malley to seek the opinion soon after she was appointed last summer, effectively disregarded one of its key findings.

Matthews said he did so because every new judge needs criminal experience.

Matthews said he did not assign O'Malley to a criminal docket last month because he did not know she would want to hear cases the ethics committee said she should not. He also said the opinion is not binding.

"The ethics committee issued an advisory opinion. She is not in violation of a ruling," Matthews said. "She said she feels comfortable hearing criminal cases, and if that's how she feels, I have no problem assigning her there."

O'Malley and Matthews said she would step down from a case if she believes there is a conflict.

The part of the opinion they disagree with asserts that O'Malley should not hear police officers as witnesses, which would keep her from hearing most criminal cases.

In its opinion, the majority of the ethics panel agreed that O'Malley and her husband, Mayor Martin O'Malley, have a "special relationship" with the Police Department because police protect the mayor's family.

O'Malley contends it would be difficult for her to have a "special" relationship with the city's more than 3,000 officers. And the mayor joked that he was surprised to hear his wife was so friendly with the entire police force.

"I have carefully researched all of the laws and canons of judicial ethics. All of the case law clearly supports the fact that I should be able to handle these cases," Judge O'Malley said yesterday. "And I do not have a special relationship with the police. I don't know but a handful of officers. "

Last week, she presided over a criminal matter in which a police officer was to testify. The plaintiff, evidently knowledgeable of the ethics ruling, said he thought O'Malley would not be able to preside over the case, but the defense lawyer spoke up and said he did not mind if she heard it.

"We went on with the case, and that was that," O'Malley said.

O'Malley, a former Baltimore County prosecutor, took the bench in August, presiding over civil cases such as neighbor disputes and protective orders.

O'Malley says she agrees with the part of the ethics panel's opinion that said she should not hear civil suits for money judgments involving the mayor and City Council.

"The committee was trying to do its best to advise and guide me. There are many parts of the opinion I will follow, but they made a few errors," she said. "When you become a judge, you take an oath to be impartial and unbiased."

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