Rejecting Mob Justice Even When The Mob Is Right: Ethical And Necessary

The Taco Bell employee-to-be,

The Taco Bell employee-to-be,

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

Facts: ABC, Billings Gazette

Graphic: KRTV

29 thoughts on “Rejecting Mob Justice Even When The Mob Is Right: Ethical And Necessary

  1. I am not quite sure why you believe people who have problems with the Zimmerman verdict have anything to do with this ruling.

    I disagree with the Zimmerman verdict (and we have had that discussion ad nauseum so we do not need to rehash it here). But I do not suggest that public opinion should be able to cause us to go back and retry Zimmerman in state court. That is the way our justice system works. Sometimes unpopular verdicts are reached. That happens, in part, because it is better to have a system that lets some guilty go free than one that locks up the innocent. (Of course, we are not perfect on the locking up innocent people thing either).

    I also understand why the horrible decision of this judge cannot just be revesed on public opinion and should only be reconcidered if the law allows it to be so.

    “This is one more in an endless trail of examples that show why electing, rather than appointing, judges is certifiably insane.”
    I have my concerns about the election of judges. But appointment by elected officials can still cause problems.

  2. Perhaps Judge Baugh is getting senile and forgot this Stacey was a male and not a female teacher. When I started reading the article, I assumed this was yet another female teacher let off with a slap on the wrist for using the classroom as their own personal meat market. A month in prison seems about right for what usually seems to happen in those instances. I wonder if there would be the same outrage is Stacey had been a woman?

  3. “Those who don’t comprehend the George Zimmerman verdict will never understand this one. Yet it is absolutely right and necessary in every way.” Such an awful introduction!

    1. People can disagree with the Zimmerman verdict and still comprehend it and believe that he should be allowed to live as normal of a life as possible going forward. I don’t know of any sane, intelligent attorney arguing that Zimmerman should be retried. (And before you start letting DOJ quotes fly from your fingers, we both know NOTHING is going to happen there — just bread and circuses to appease the angry mob in the moment.)
    2. I understand this case and agree with your analysis. I also think Judges should be appointed btw. But that raises the question — if citizens aren’t competent to elect Judges, are they competent to sit on juries?

    • But I’m not talking about people who disagree with the Zimmerman verdict but who understand it—although, frankly, I don’t see how that combination is possible. If you understand the beyond a reasonable doubt standard and paid any attention to the trial you know that there wasn’t sufficient evidence for that standard.

      Sure, people can be competent jurors. First of all, we vet jurors; we don’t vet voters. Second, we make jurors pay attention. Most voters, and not just for judges, don’t pay attention.

      • But the voters vet the Judges that are running for office.

        I think most reasonable people agree that lesser charges should have been brought against Zimmerman. The verdict is correct, but it doesn’t mean that justice necessarily has been served.

        • The justice canary had flown as soon as the President opened his big mouth and made Zimmerman even more of a target than he already was, and equated Trayvon with his “son.”. It was gone the second idiot CBC members started showing up in hoodies, the family and media got involved, and the fictional narrative was created that a child-like angel barely out of diapers was hunted by a black-hating white guy for carrying skittles. It was gone as soon as NBC phonied up a 911 call to make GZ seem like a racist.

          Then any charge other than 1st or second degree murder was going to be condemned as part of a whitewash (get it?) in a racist system. Justice was impossible once Zimmerman’s first set of lawyers gave their disgraceful press conference making him sound like a nut case. Once Al Sharpton and Eric Holder joined forces, justice was doomed, except by acquitting Zimmerman. (Stephen Pagones never got justice.) By then a fair trial had become impossible. Thanks to a gutsy and attentive jury, justice, as much as possible, survived anyway.

          The same people bitching about the over-charging helped make sure nothing else could happen.

  4. “First of all, we vet jurors; we don’t vet voters. Second, we make jurors pay attention. Most voters, and not just for judges, don’t pay attention.”

    And in that sentence, Jack, you have summed up the basic fallacy of our system.

  5. IMHO, the root of ALL the issues all the issues brought up by everyone so far is ignorance and lack of education, Period. An informed and active populous who had the time to focus on culture and educating themselves (instead of the “Fear Factor” of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs level 1 and 2, where the majority seem to be forced into more and more) would solve all the problems listed above. But that’s not what the leaders of our country want, to once again quote George Carlin.

    It’s not rocket science – and the way our leaders have been acting, Globally, is evidence of this ignorance, across the board.

  6. I’m curious if there’s an appropriate way for a Judge to change a sentence- can he say something like “I had a complete memory lapse regarding sentencing guidelines and issued an improper sentence, which I intend to amend?” It seems like there should be SOME mechanism for doing so, and if that mechanism is in place then the crowd’s reaction shouldn’t be a factor.

    Of course in this case all signs point to it being totally crowd service, but I mean in general.

    • The system has to have finality. There are appeals, and you can petition to have a sentence reduced. But if the sentence is legal and the trial is done, I think double jeopardy is implicated if the judge opens a new proceeding for the purpose of making the sentence harsher. I’ll research it.

  7. I’m very worried about attempts to please the mob over even our imperfect legal system. Did anyone else see the Cold Justice ‘reality show?’ That bothered my mother and she doesn’t read here. It isn’t a fictional drama or report on a case after it’s gone through the system. Maybe there was a good idea, but it came out to be egging on mob rule on events instead of evidence and a jury… I don’t think there are any checks and balances over the tyranny of mass entertainment.

  8. Considering the caliber of the average juror and that most middle class people will do anything to get out of jury duty, why don’t we set up “professional juries” and pay them well for their service? They would need to attend continuing ed. seminars re: criminal and civil law.

    • A professional jury was a component in the western evolution of Due Process and you can still see them in some countries. However, they generally come in form of panels of judges, because inevitably a judge is the final development of a professional jury.

      Professional juries, paid by the state, will inevitably have a conflict of interest biase towards the state. That is antithetical to our judicial system within a system of checks and balance of power. A jury of your peers selected from the citizenry represents a check against the state prosecution and the state employed judge. It is essential in a federal system as one more protection of the individual against state abuse.

      Professional juries sound good in theory, just like utopian dreams of an intellectual elite running our government. But it all ultimately represents ceding more autonomy to central authority and trusting they don’t abuse that power. But they will, and if they don’t, you can never know they are deciding impartially or if they are deciding in favor of the state prosecution (who inevitably is a representative of who pays them).

      • That is to extend:

        Lamenting the slide towards non-civically educated jurors shouldn’t be an isolated concern. It should take its rightful place among the depression of our entire federal system being culturally forgotten as a greater comfort towards centralism and collectivism grows.

        • So why not bar judges or attorneys from being professional jurors. In America, it is understood that juries usually weigh the evidence and testimony to determine questions of fact, while judges usually rule on questions of law. So that way, there is a barrier to ceding more power to central authority. In my state jurors are paid for their service anyway although it is a pittance. That’s one of the reasons why middle class people avoid service unless they’re elderly and have lots of time on their hands.

  9. The law can be unjust and the application of the law can be difficult to swallow. It is just a blessing to live in a country where we can criticize judges, politicians and priests without fear of reprisal.

    I believe in Britain is it a crime to public condemn a judge’s decision, among other countries.. And even though reacting to the mob factor is wrong, it also shines a light on someone who shouldn’t be wearing a robe, at least not in public…

  10. 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.”

    Yeah, “sex happened” to that girl in Steubenville.

    “Sex happened” to Elizabeth Shoaf.

    What are these people on?

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