Judge James K. Bredar, assigned to oversee Baltimore consent decree, is former public defender

James K. Bredar, the federal judge assigned to oversee and enforce the consent decree struck between the U.S. Justice Department and the city of Baltimore, brings an unusual — some say, unusually appropriate — background to the task.

Before President Barack Obama nominated him to the U.S. District Court for Maryland in 2010, Bredar served on both sides of the criminal bar, as a federal prosecutor in Denver and a federal public defender in Baltimore. He's one of the few federal public defenders in the nation to have become a federal judge.

In between, he spent two years in London researching the British criminal justice system for the Vera Institute, and remains a trustee of the New York-based criminal justice think tank.

Bredar was assigned to the case Thursday — a process that court officials described as random. But legal professionals who know him say he is uniquely suited for the role.

"The Police Department and the citizens of Baltimore are both fortunate that Judge Bredar pulled this assignment," said Ronald Weich, the dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law. "He's going to be fair, and going to be firm. I know Judge Bredar will be committed to enforcement of the consent decree."

Bredar declined to comment Thursday.

As the judge overseeing the consent decree, his first order of business will be convening a public hearing on the agreement to help him decide whether to approve it, making it binding.

In some cities, the judges overseeing consent decrees have made changes to the agreements, or taken months to approve them.

The agreement calls for the Justice Department and the city to select a monitor who will report to Bredar, but if the two sides can't agree, Bredar will make the choice.

Also looming is the possibility that President-elect Donald J. Trump, to be inaugurated next week, and Jeff Sessions, his nominee for attorney general, will pursue a different approach to the problems identified by the Justice Department in its investigation of policing in Baltimore.

Justice investigators reported that city officers engaged in discriminatory and unconstitutional policing that affected residents in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods disproportionately.

The consent decree, negotiated by the Justice Department and the city, is a court-enforceable list of reforms the city and Police Department have agreed to implement.

"The federal court is the mechanism that creates accountability," said Elizabeth Bonham, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Ohio, which has been following the Cleveland police consent decree approved in 2015.

Bredar, who turns 60 this year, already has a heavy caseload: He is overseeing the corruption indictments filed last fall at the state's largest prison on the Eastern Shore. With 80 defendants, it's the largest case ever brought to a federal grand jury in the U.S. District Court for Maryland.

Bredar was born in Nebraska and grew up in Colorado. An emergency medical technician, he joined the ski patrol as a high school sophomore, and continued to volunteer during breaks from school and work for the next 26 years.

He earned a bachelor's degree at Harvard and a law degree at Georgetown, and then returned to Colorado. He served there as a prosecutor for five years — first for the state, and then as an assistant U.S. attorney.

After his stint in London, he came to Baltimore in 1992 to be the top federal public defender for Maryland. At his investiture, Bredar spoke of public defenders as those who "restrain government power."

"The exercise of raw government police power isn't necessarily the best strategy for attacking social problems such as the nation's current drug problem," The Washington Post reported him saying. "We already lock up more people than any other society.

"I think we'd better find another solution to the problem, and as we face our generation's social problems, we must be mindful of the real dangers for all of us in allowing the balance of power to shift too far to the government's side."

Later, as a nominee for the federal bench, Bredar was asked by Sessions if the courts should take the lead in creating a more "just society."

"U.S. District Judges are to apply law to facts," he wrote in response. "The determination of policy is for the other, elected branches of government."

Asked whether it was appropriate for judges to favor those who are poor, he answered no.

James Wyda, the current top federal public defender from Maryland and a friend of Bredar, said at Bredar's judicial investiture that he had spent his professional life "working on behalf of the powerless and the voiceless" and had a "sense of how the world works, and how it can work against those at the bottom."

Wyda and Bredar shared a law school mentor, Daniel Freed, who was a pioneer in advocating for reforms of federal sentencing laws.

Wyda said Thursday that he believes the perception of fairness in Baltimore's criminal justice system is "profoundly damaged."

"Having represented poor people tangled up in the criminal justice system, in addition to his experience as a prosecutor at the local and federal level … he's got the perspective that will allow him to do this really important job," Wyda said.

Bredar was appointed to be a federal magistrate judge in 1998. He served in that role for more than a decade, handling mostly civil cases, but also seeing some high-profile criminal defendants, including the Beltway snipers.

The year of his appointment, Bredar suffered a personal loss: His wife was killed in a car accident in Towson.

In 2009, Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, both Maryland Democrats, recommended Bredar to Obama for a vacancy on the District Court bench.

At the time, Weich said, it was almost unheard of to name a federal public defender judge — and it remains rare.

The Senate approved his nomination on a voice vote.

Presiding at the federal courthouse in Baltimore, Bredar has handled several high-profile cases.

Bredar used his judicial discretion in 2013 to ignore federal sentencing guidelines for two men convicted of distributing marijuana, saying that such cases were "not regarded with the same seriousness" as they had been a few decades earlier.

He also cited concerns of equal justice raised by the federal government's decision not to pursue cases in states that had legalized the drug.

In December 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that Bredar was wrong to dismiss a challenge to Maryland's congressional redistricting map without referring it to a three-judge panel.

The case was sent back to District Court, and the three-judge panel ruled 2-1 — with Bredar dissenting — that the case had merit and should go forward.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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