Judges Cannot “Do Over” Even When They Give a Rapist 30 Days Instead of 2 Years

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We all have days we wish we could “do over,” but when you sit on the bench, it is just not that simple.

Montana has been in the headlines over the past few weeks for the actions of District Judge G. Todd Baugh, who sits in Great Falls. Judge Baugh presided over the case of Stacey Rambold, a former teacher who had a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl. If those facts alone were not enough to upset the general public, the girl committed suicide while Rambold’s rape case was proceeding. Then Judge Baugh made some irresponsible comments about the victim, making the whole situation all the worse.

What really made headlines in legal circles, though, was Judge Baugh’s sentencing of Rambold. Rambold entered into a deferred prosecution agreement, so the girl’s death is now three years past when Rambold is finally facing sentencing for violating the terms of his agreement. Judge Baugh handed down a sentence of 15 years – but it was suspended except for 31 days of it (and a credit was even given for one day of time served). So the headlines read, “Ex-Teacher Gets 30 Days For Rape of Girl; Judge Says She Was ‘Older Than Her Chronological Age’“.

With the public outrage, Judge Baugh saw what a foolish thing he had done with this sentence and decided to “do it over.” He also apparently realized that the sentence was unsupported by Montana law, which imposes a mandatory minimum time in prison. However, judges cannot just redo a bad decision. Legal concepts like the rights of the defendant, the sanctity of rulings, the process of appeal, and so forth get in the way of judges fixing their own mistakes.

Judge Baugh’s “do over” was to order a hearing at which he was to rule on whether the sentence should actually be two years of mandatory prison time. Trouble is, the defendant had already been sentenced. He was even serving that sentence. Wrong as the court’s order may be under Montana law (and it seems from the press coverage and statements by attorneys involved that the sentence is unlawful as it is far below the mandatory minimum), the judge cannot just change his ruling. The Montana Supreme Court agreed and stopped the judge from holding the planned hearing – just one hour before it was scheduled to begin.

I personally witnessed something similar in California, where a judge issued a lengthy and thoughtful decision post-trial, then sua sponte reversed herself two weeks later. The losing party had not even appealed. The litigant who had won after trial and then lost on the second opinion went to the Presiding Judge who must have taken action, as the reversal of the original decision was suddenly (and sua sponte) vacated, leaving the original decision to stand.

It must be frustrating to be a judge and realize that you have made a mistake, but the judicial process is in place in part to give certainty to dispute resolution. A losing party has a right to appeal, and errors should be rectified through this process. If judges were allowed to second guess themselves and just change their minds, it would disrupt the system to a huge degree.

In the Montana case, the defendant is serving his 30 days, so even with the hearing being ordered and then canceled, he at least knew he was not going anywhere for the month. In the California case, the party who won at trial had a judgment dismissing the case, and then suddenly had an order requiring immediate payment of a substantial sum and dispossessing him of his home. Then that was vacated, and he went back to having a judgment dismissing the case against him. What absolute chaos!

From the perspective of the litigants, even when a judge makes a really bad decision, at least we know there are processes in place to challenge the unfavorable rulings. Lawyers learn and practice those procedures, knowing how to appeal and when special procedures can be taken for expedited review of particularly egregious rulings or those with the most dire and immediate of consequences. Even though some of these unorthodox ways of trying to correct judicial errors may go in our favor, the overall disruption of the system is too great to be allowed. The Montana Supreme Court got it right when it ordered Judge Baugh to cancel the “do over” hearing and allow the sentence to stand until a proper appeal can be taken. It is not the path that might be popular with a justifiably outraged public, but the sanctity of the system requires proper procedure to be followed.

(image:http://www.flickr.com/photos/liquidnight/2079288639/)

  • Law Office of Leslie Williams

    I was honestly appalled when I first heard about this…simply shocked. I mean it’s one thing for a judge to be frank and firm and stand by a rigid set of values upon sentencing a suspect, but “doing over” is completely uncharacteristic of what “we the people” expect from someone of such high legal authority and moral responsibility.

  • http://www.danmillerlawoffice.com/ Daniel C. Miller Attorney

    That is a pretty terrible mistake to make. Does this judge not know the law in his own state?

  • Scott Hill

    It seems when I read about this, The light sentence was in part due to prior actions by the prosecution in giving a lenient plea deal and there became an issue such that when this judge saw this it was actually more akin to a probation revocation than a sentence for rape. Not that this excuses the judge for a boneheaded comment, but where is ire at the prosecution in this case.

  • http://www.kensingtonpodiatry.com/ US Immigration Policy

    From CNN:

    “As the case wound its way through the legal system, Cherice committed suicide. She was a few weeks shy of her 17th birthday.

    With her death, prosecutors entered into what is known as a “deferred prosecution agreement” with Rambold.

    This meant that all charges against Rambold would be dismissed if he completed a sex-offender treatment program and met other requirements. One of them was to have no contact with children.

    Rambold admitted to one of the rape charges.

    But the ex-teacher fell short of the agreement.

    “He had some contacts with nieces and nephews in a family setting and other adults were present,” Baugh said.

    He also had relationships with women that he didn’t tell his counselors about.

    “That is a violation from his deferred prosecution so he was dropped from the plan,” said the judge.

    As a result, the case was revived in December 2012.

    Canadian teen commits suicide after alleged rape

    The hearing

    At a hearing last month, Baugh ruled that Rambold’s infractions weren’t serious enough.

    “He made some violations of his treatment program,” he said. “They were more technical and not the kind you would send someone to prison for.”

    He sentenced Rambold to 15 years in prison. Then, he suspended all but 31 days of the sentence, according to the Yellowstone County District Court.”

    http://www.i601waiverattorney.com/