Monday, June 07, 1999

Judges sully system with personal views

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's time someone read judges their rights.

        You have the right to remain silent.

        You also have the right to say just about anything you please.

        Just remember, anything you say from the bench can be used against you.

        So, think — long and hard — before speaking. Don't damage the public trust judges enjoy. Remember, people hold your profession in such high regard, they call you “Your honor.”

        Last week, Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman sentenced April Parson to 10 years in jail for killing her 2-month-old son.

        Her son was crying. She wanted him to stop. So, she smothered him.

        The mother received the maximum jail time for involuntary manslaughter. So, I can't quibble with the sentence.

        My problem rests with the judge's comments.

        While sentencing the mother, Judge Ruehlman expressed the belief that society's acceptance of abortion has made it easier for parents to kill their children.

        “It's our country's fault,” the judge said in court. “We have sanctioned the wholesale slaughter of unborn children.”

        To me, those words don't sound judicious. They express an attitude, a personal opinion, not one grounded in logic or based on legal precedent. They aren't the thoughtful comments I expect from Judge Ruehlman or any other judge. And, I think, they have no place in a courtroom.

        Not that judges can't hold personal opinions. This is a free country.

        But, I believe people who wear black robes and deliver opinions for a living should not let their personal beliefs intrude upon a legal decision based on evidence and the law.

        Judge Ruehlman's comments made me wonder: Is there a school for judges, some place where they learn how to render opinions, a sort of Judges University?

        There is. It's called the Ohio Supreme Court's Judicial College, and it's based in Columbus.

        H.F. Inderlied Jr., a veteran common pleas court judge from Geauga County, teaches courses at the college in judicial ethics and delivering courtroom opinions.

        I talked with him about judges mixing personal opinions and beliefs with their legal decisions. “There's nothing illegal or unethical about that,” Judge Inderlied said. “But they must utilize common sense.”

        I told him about Judge Ruehlman's recent comments and his remarks in a 1991 case involving banker Marvin Warner that ultimately led to the judge's being removed from the trial.

        I also mentioned a recent case in which Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Melba Marsh caused the sentence of a child rapist to be thrown out on appeal. The appeals court found that she relied too much on the Bible to reach her decision.

        “Judges have the luxury of pertinent expression in the courtroom,” Judge Inderlied noted. “When they exercise that luxury, it typically generates into impertinent statements and circumstances.”

        Remarks in which the judge doesn't “show much respect to the people you are dealing with, where you rip into them or lecture them when they know they've done wrong,” can lead to unfortunate outcomes. “Decisions can be overturned on appeal,” the judge said. “In some cases, there can be judicial discipline.”

        In other cases, people coming into the courtroom can ask for a new judge. “This can happen when you telegraph your philosophy and attitudes in public on topics that have no right or wrong answer, issues such as abortion,” said Judge Inderlied. “People being tried on cases surrounding that issue can ask that such a judge be disqualified from hearing their trial.”

        Strip away all of the legal mumbo-jumbo and the argument boils down to this: Judges popping off in the courtroom set a bad example. They bog down the system and create more work for appeals courts. More of our tax dollars are spent in the process. Bad guys might even get off on technicalities.

        Worst of all, they undermine the confidence we have in a system that works, a system everyone relies on to be fair.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.