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Contempt of court

Judge Baugh's botched apology signals a call for help

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On Aug. 28, Montana District Court Judge G. Todd Baugh read a public apology in which he described himself as a "blithering idiot" for remarks he made from the bench while sentencing high school teacher Stacey Dean Rambold. It was the first time in several days that something his honor said was met with widespread agreement.

The previous week, Baugh had sentenced Rambold to 30 days for sexually abusing 14-year-old Billings student Cherice Moralez㬋 years suspended, 31 days in prison and credit for one day already served. During the sentencing, Baugh suggested that Moralez had been in control of her sexual relationship with the 54-year-old Rambold, remarking that the adolescent girl was "older than her chronological age."

Missoula Independent news

It was an awful thing to say about any 14-year-old, but it was a particularly awful thing to say about Moralez, who killed herself in 2010.

Under Montana law, a 14-year-old cannot consent to sex with an adult, and Rambold's relationship with her constituted statutory rape. Baugh's "chronological age" claim was not only irrelevant to the law, but also manifestly false in the context of Moralez's suicide. The psychological agony she suffered as a result of Rambold's abuse shows that she was absolutely not in control of that relationship, as no child could be.

Baugh's remarks and the sentence that accompanied them prompted an outcry in the national media, and a petition circulated calling for the judge's resignation. Baugh backtracked quickly, but he botched his apology nearly as badly as he botched Rambold's sentencing.

First, he apologized for what he said but stood by the sentence. Shortly after reporters discovered that he had never signed a written sentencing order, Baugh scheduled a new hearing for Sept. 6, arguing that the first sentence had been "illegal."

That plan would have undermined the appeal that Attorney General Tim Fox filed with the Montana Supreme Court on Sept. 4. In a weirdly perfect perversion of how an apology is supposed to work, Baugh's attempt to show everyone that he regretted what he did threatened the state's attempt to actually undo it.

The judge went ahead with his planned resentencing anyway, telling reporters that he intended to hold the Friday hearing even if he was the only person present. Less than an hour before the scheduled time, the Montana Supreme Court ordered him to stop. That afternoon, Baugh told Billings NBC affiliate KULR that the fiasco could have been avoided "if I'd been more alert or if the state had pointed out to the court the correct mandatory minimum."

Which brings us to where we are now. It seems there are two lessons to be learned here, and I'll start with the most obvious.

First, the honorable G. Todd Baugh has absurdly poor judgment. He showed it when he sentenced Rambold, and he showed it in the days that followed, as he persisted in his bizarre attempts to save face even when they threatened efforts to undo his mistake. That is a man who does not understand what contrition is. I hesitate to think how he applied this warped faculty over three decades as a professional judge.

Second, and perhaps less obviously, this mess underscores the need for statewide training in how judges approach sexual abuse cases. Baugh's claim that Moralez was somehow older than her actual age is closer to the mindset of her abuser than to the law. It reflects a victim-blaming attitude that is too common in certain pockets of a state that did not establish an age of consent until 1973, when Baugh was in his 30s.

For whatever reasons, it has been a bad couple of years for Montana and rape. The Department of Justice continues its investigation into how the Missoula County Attorney's Office handles sexual assault cases. A related inquiry concluded in May that the police department showed pervasive gender bias in its own responses to complaints.

Perhaps these instances only show that the federal government is overstepping its authority, as County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg has suggested. Perhaps the national press has made too much of Baugh's stupid mistake. Regardless of why, though, the Montana criminal justice system's attitude toward sexual assaults has been very publicly out of line with the rest of the nation's on multiple occasions in the last two years.

Why not do something about it? Why not provide standardized training to Montana police, prosecutors and judges, so that men like Baugh cannot claim ignorance of the laws they are trusted to enforce?

After 29 years as a district judge, his honor claimed that he did not know the mandatory minimum sentence for statutory rape. He says that prosecutors should have told him. Maybe he's right. Maybe we should hold a few seminars, or print out a packet or two, so that the state of Montana can do justice even with a blithering idiot on the bench.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and lying at combatblog.net. His column appears every other week in the Independent.

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