Lawyers don't need more jokes written about them.
And that's why it's kind of hard to understand why the Yellowstone Area Bar Association chose to honor former District Judge G. Todd Baugh for a lifetime achievement award.
Baugh is the former longtime district court judge who drew a firestorm of wrath when he made comments about a 14-year-old girl who was raped by a former teacher.
Not that many in the area need to be reminded, except for our group of lawyers, who have either ignored or forgotten Baugh's exit from the bench. Remember Baugh said a 14-year-old girl, who later committed suicide and had been raped by a teacher, was "older than her chronological age" and that she was "as much in control of the situation" as Stacey Rambold, her convicted abuser.
The comments went so far beyond the pale of acceptable that Baugh drew nationwide condemnation for his words.
The final words, though, and perhaps the most strong ones came from Montana's own Supreme Court which overturned Baugh's sentence in the case and ultimately censured him in public.
Chief Justice Mike McGrath said Baugh "eroded public confidence in the judiciary and created an appearance of impropriety."
McGrath didn't stop there in the rare step of a public dress-down.
"He has caused Montana citizens, as well as others, to question the fairness of our justice system ... There is no place in the Montana judiciary for perpetuating the stereotype that women and girls are responsible for sexual crimes committed against them."
So, let's see if we have this correct: The Montana Supreme Court says that Baugh's actions have caused state residents to question the fairness of the justice system and perpetuate a stereotype and less than a year later, the Yellowstone Area lawyers honor him with a lifetime achievement?
Undoubtedly, Baugh's career is much more extensive than this one very high-profile, highly known case. And his career isn't just about the Rambold case. Yet, his career cannot be assessed honestly without this very dark blemish.
We cannot help but wonder if the bar association's lifetime award isn't a consolation prize from old buddies hoping to rewrite a bit of history. And, if not rewriting a bit of history, is this an attempt to add a little polish to a severely tarnished record?
It's probably telling enough that the bar association remains mum on who made the nomination and his supporters have chosen to remain silent. They've taken the Fifth.
Had the bar association done a better job prefacing and explaining the award, then it might have been understandable -- maybe. After all, Baugh's actions in the case have, at times, seemed to eclipse those of the perpetrator, Rambold. The real bad guy in this case was a teacher who abused his power of trust and authority. That being said, if supporters of Baugh argue his career shouldn't be defined solely by the Rambold case, so too cannot it not be separated from it. To give Baugh plaudits without honestly reckoning the end of his judicial career seems glib. And we don't know how to give a lifetime award on one hand, while taking into account the strong words from the fellow judges on the state's supreme court.
It's also hard to imagine the Yellowstone Area Bar Association could have not foreseen the inevitable public outcry that would come from this award.
And that's the most important part. Even if this award aimed to simply honor a man who sat for years on the bench and highlight otherwise distinguished practice, you cannot honor Baugh without the stigma. It's a tone-deaf, insensitive move.
Right now, it appears as if the attorneys have given their tacit endorsement to Baugh's comments. It looks like they have supported that which deserves no credit when it comes to the dangerous stereotype Baugh supported in his Rambold case decision.
We also don't believe that Baugh is the only lawyer in the area worthy of such an award. Surely, there must be other attorneys whose careers were meritorious enough to warrant recognition. If not, then that would be an even more sobering statement on the caliber of the legal profession here. And, as an organization that covers attorneys in action every day, we'd suggest there are so many excellent examples of professionalism, competence and compassion that to honor Baugh seems an insult to those worthy other attorneys.
If justice is deserving what you get, Baugh's award can only be seen as a miscarriage.