Gazette opinion: Restoring confidence in state courts

2014-06-09T00:00:00Z 2014-06-09T07:11:06Z Gazette opinion: Restoring confidence in state courts The Billings Gazette
June 09, 2014 12:00 am

There is no good news in the tragic case of the 14-year-old rape victim who committed suicide, her 47-year-old assailant and the judge whose mistakes intensified the outrage.

However, Montanans can feel a bit more confident about our state court system after the Montana Supreme Court’s order last week.

The justices agreed that Yellowstone County District Court Judge G. Todd Baugh, who is retiring at year's end, should be censured, as recommended by the Judicial Standards Commission. Censure is a severe and formal public scolding, rarely directed at a Montana judge.

Then the court majority of four went further, adding that Baugh’s actions warrant his being suspended without pay for 31 days.

Thirty-one days is exactly how long Baugh sentenced Stacy Dean Rambold to serve in prison for raping Cherice Morales. Rambold was a business teacher then at Senior High School where Morales was a freshman. Rambold initially was charged with three counts of rape. Morales took her own life before the case went to trial, prompting prosecutors to make a deal with Rambold that required him to complete sex offender treatment to avoid prison. He failed to complete the treatment, so the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office asked Baugh to send Rambold to prison for 10 years.

Rambold’s attorney argued for all but 31 days to be suspended. Baugh agreed to that terribly lenient sentence after making remarks about the 14-year-old girl being older than her chronological age and being as much in control of the situation as Rambold.

Those remarks, reported in The Gazette, sparked public outrage. Within days, Baugh apologized for his remarks, made other offensive remarks about the case and attempted to re-sentence Rambold, even though such a procedure would have been illegal.

A few weeks ago, the Montana Supreme Court confirmed that 31 days isn’t a lawful sentence in this case and sent it back to Yellowstone County District Court for re-sentencing by a new judge.

Writing for the court majority, Chief Justice Mike McGrath rightly declared: “There is no place in the Montana judiciary for perpetuating the stereotype that women and girls are responsible for sexual crimes committed against them.”

The high court allowed Baugh till June 19 to decide whether to accept the 31 days without pay or to contest the suspension in formal proceedings before the Judicial Standards Commission.

For the public, the suspension does offer a measure of justice: A judge who failed to do his job doesn’t get paid.

But more significantly, the Montana Supreme Court has responded to this miscarriage of justice with transparency and candor. Remember the complaints filed against former U.S. District Court Judge Richard Cebull? The judges in charge of discipline in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals apparently did everything possible to hide the investigation findings from the public and never called Cebull to account publicly. Complainants weren’t told whether their complaints were being investigated, and most were not.

McGrath stated Baugh’s mistake plainly: “Through his unlawful sentence, inappropriate rationale and subsequent public comments, Judge Baugh has eroded public confidence in the judiciary and created an appearance of impropriety, therefore violating the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct. He has caused Montana citizens, as well as others, to question the fairness of our justice system and whether prejudice or bias affected the outcome of the Rambold case.”

The Supreme Court’s opinion helps reassure the public that the state justice system does strive for fairness.

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