Violent crime in Baltimore is understandably a source of concern to all residents of the city and others. The Maryland Judiciary, especially judges who work and live in the City, share in this concern.
Recent public discussion makes it important to remember that legal and ethical rules restrict the ability of judges to engage in public discussion on issues before the court – in particular, on the subject of sentences in individual cases. Those rules are based on the requirement of impartiality, which is a foundation of the rule of law that ensures every person’s right to a fair trial.
Judges are responsible for deciding a wide variety of issues that arise in criminal cases, one of which is the sentence to be imposed when a defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty.
The criminal justice process also involves many other participants, including prosecuting and defense attorneys, defendants, victims and witnesses, law enforcement personnel, juries, probation and parole officers and correctional agencies. Decisions judges make are shaped by the necessity to assess and resolve disputed factual and legal questions, keeping to the principles outlined by the U.S. and Maryland constitutions, by legislatures and appellate courts and based on competing positions of other participants. Judges must apply these rules, case by case, based on individual circumstances.
Making these decisions imposes many demands, but the most fundamental demand is impartiality. It deserves restating. Impartiality, the even-handed application of the law unencumbered by extraneous factors or preconceptions, is essential to the protection of the rights of each of the participants in the legal process and to the rule of law.
The Code of Judicial Conduct precludes judges from making public statements about cases that come before them. The reasons are easy to imagine. Such statements may give rise to a perception that a judge has a preconceived opinion about cases without hearing the evidence.
Furthermore, explanations about decisions outside case proceedings may well violate a person’s rights. Therefore, judges’ statements about the reasons for their decisions are made in the courtroom, not outside of it.
This does not imply that the decisions judges make are shielded from public scrutiny – far from it. All court proceedings, criminal hearings, trials and sentencings take place in a public forum accessible to the public. Proceedings are recorded. Each day in Baltimore, cases are heard in dozens of courtrooms in the circuit and district courts, where anyone interested in the process is welcome to attend.
As we move forward together, the Maryland Judiciary strives to work collaboratively with its justice partners within the ethical and legal limits to which it is sworn to uphold.
The writer is the director of communications and public affairs for the Maryland Judiciary.