Prediction: Those who don’t comprehend the George Zimmerman verdict will never understand this one. Yet it is absolutely right and necessary in every way.
Summary: The Montana Supreme Court blocked an incompetent judge from changing an offensive and inexcusably inadequate sentence for a serious crime, because he was trying to do so as the result of public criticism.
Background: Judge G. Todd Baugh, an elected district judge in Montana’s Yellowstone County, sentenced former high school teacher Stacey Dean Rambold to 15 years in prison with all but 31 days suspended—that’s one lousy month, friends— for having sexual intercourse without consent, also known as rape, with a 14-year-old female student (the teacher was 49 at the time) who later committed suicide while the case was pending. The judge, who appears to be an idiot (he later said that he can’t imagine what came over him) explained his decision at the time by saying that the underaged victim of the statutory rape was “older than her chronological age” and had “as much control of the situation” as the teacher.
Beginning with the late student’s mother, who reacted to the absurd sentence by screaming “You suck!” at the judge (Excellent diagnosis, by the way) and storming out of the courtroom, the ridiculous verdict caused an overwhelming backlash of negative public sentiment that spread nationwide. There was so much wrong with the sentence and the way it was arrived at that the mind, and conscience, boggles:
- The resulting sentence was far less than the statutory sentencing guidelines.
- The rapist-teacher had been warned by the school back in 2004 to keep his hands off female students. Why any school would continue to employ a teacher who needed such a warning is another unanswerable question, unless the answer is: Abject incompetence, negligence, and stupidity. (Yes, there are civil damages on the way to the parents.)
- In the first go-round on the case, the teacher’s initial lenient sentence was conditioned on his completing a sex offenders program. He couldn’t (he continued to have contact with underaged girls) and was kicked out, voiding the original plea deal.
- Prosecutors botched the case from the beginning, first agreeing to a far too generous plea deal, then inexplicably failing to object to the later sentence by Judge Baugh the second it left his mouth.
- The teacher’s defense before Baugh, which apparently worked, consisted of that old, logically and ethically invalid standby, “my client has suffered enough.” Rambold lost his career, his marriage and his home, the defense attorney said, and has suffered a “scarlet letter of the Internet” as a result of publicity about the case. Don’t blame the lawyer: he had to offer some defense, and he was stuck with a stone-cold sexual predator whose victim, a troubled girl whom he cruelly exploited, was dead at 16. This pathetic argument was all the defense attorney had, and he was ethically obligated to make it. And the judge was ethically obligated to answer it with, “Good! And now your client is going to jail for a long, long time.”
- After he delivered the rap on the wrist to the teacher-rapist, and public opinion erupted against him, Judge Baugh—he really does appear to be an idiot– told the Billings Gazette, “I think what people are seeing is a sentence for rape of 30 days. Obviously, on the face of it, if you look at it that way, it’s crazy. No wonder people are upset. I’d be upset, too, if that happened.”
Uh, Judge? No, make that Judge Dummy—people are seeing it that way because that was, in fact, your sentence. It IS crazy. And it did happen. What the hell is the matter with you?
Apparently stung by everyone realizing that he had no more business administering justice from the bench than a badly-trained seal, Baugh then tried to change his sentence. An hour before his hearing on how to undo the outrage that was already done, Montana’s Supreme Court properly stepped in, blocking the hearing and saying,
“We conclude that the stated intent of the District Court to alter the initially imposed oral sentence in today’s scheduled hearing is unlawful.We take no position on the legality of the imposed sentence, and will address the parties’ arguments in that regard on appeal.”
Exactly right. Even a terrible and perhaps illegal sentence cannot be overturned as the result of public outrage: this is mob justice, even though in this case the mob happens to be wiser than the judge. Process is essential to civilization, society and a nation of laws, and if we discard process for short-cuts to reach good results, nothing will stop later attempts to defy process in order to reach bad ones if they are popular enough. If one heinous sexual predator must go free to uphold this desperately important principle, it is worth the risk and pain. (Rambold will still have to register as a sex offender, which is some consolation.)
Maybe the sentence will be over-turned the right way, by the Montana Supreme Court; we shall see. Right now, the only immediate action that can and should be taken is to send Judge Baugh to his next career behind the counter at Taco Bell as quickly as possible, via impeachment, resignation or defeat at the polls. You elected this fool, folks. You share some of the responsibility for him.
I have two final observations on an awful scenario:
- This is one more in an endless trail of examples that show why electing, rather than appointing, judges is certifiably insane.
- Writer and former lawyer ( former, eh? hmmmmm….) Betsy Kurasik wrote a miserable op-ed for the Washington Post, beginning with the Rambold case) arguing that what Rambold did shouldn’t be a criminal offense because “sex happens.” If you don’t think that this all-too-common attitude helped produce Baugh’s sentence, you are naive. I was going to write a post debunking Kurasik’s profoundly unethical position, but decided that the essay debunked itself.
Pointer: Res Ipsa Loquitur