Good judge, bad judge; you judge

Nov. 12, 2012 @ 03:27 PM

Two incidents on the same day involving circuit judges caught my attention recently. One got lots of media play, as it should have. The other was big news locally, but not so much outside of the area.

Each shows both the power of a judge and the abuse of power that can result from a bad judge, and how critically important it is to have honest and conscientious people sitting on the bench.

Richard Baumgartner, as disgraced and disgraceful a former judge as we may ever have seen outside of a TV drama, was convicted Nov. 2 by a Knoxville federal jury of five counts of lying to cover up his efforts to get painkillers and sexual favors.

That same day in Sevier County, Circuit Judge Rex Henry Ogle heard enough testimony during a first-degree murder trial to call a halt to the proceedings and issue a directed verdict for the defendant, freeing her from two years of jail and charges she killed the woman for whom she was caring.

Baumgartner was charged in May with misprision of a felony. He was accused of lying to cover up a conspiracy in which a defendant in his court was supplying him with sex and pain pills. His own lawyers admitted Baumgartner was addicted to pain pills and cheated on his wife, but said that wasn't a federal crime. A jury disagreed, and the former judge faces a maximum of three years in prison and a hefty fine on each count. He will be sentenced on March 27.

Baumgartner's addiction and philandering were probably not a big secret in the confines of the courthouse, but his actions clearly affected his judgment and conduct. He presided over the trial of the four men accused of the rape and slaying of a couple they carjacked. That case may have to be retried because of the judge's conduct. Other cases over which he presided also may have to be retried.

Baumgartner continued to serve as a judge even though he was impaired, addicted to pain pills and using a defendant to get him more pills and line up illicit sex. Compassion for him is in short supply.

Judge Ogle is a conservative Republican and, like Baumgartner, subject to re-election. What he does on the bench can affect his political standing. People really do expect a judge to be fair, impartial, knowledgeable of the law and physically fit for the job. Sometimes their definition of those attributes can differ.

While presiding over the murder trial of Elizabeth Ogle, charged with killing Betty Rice in 2010 while caring for the ailing Rice, Judge Ogle heard the state's case, then the testimony a series of medical experts for the defense that shot down much of what the state's evidence purported to show. It would have been easy for the judge to send the case to the jury and hope those 12 people agreed with his own assessment that Elizabeth Ogle (no relation to the judge) was innocent.

If the jury had returned a guilty verdict, Judge Ogle had the power to toss out that conviction immediately and order a retrial. Or he could do what he ended up doing: Calling the players into his office for a conference, during which he apparently told them he was going to issue a directed verdict on behalf of the defendant and set her free.

The politically wise thing to do was let the jury have it. Instead, the judge did direct a verdict of innocent for the defendant, ending her two-plus years of hell.

That took some guts.

Sometimes doing what is right takes courage. Baumgartner showed no courage, instead acting selfishly and still presiding over trials when he knew he shouldn't be. Judge Ogle saw a woman on trial for a crime he knew she didn't commit, and he acted within the power of his office to put a stop to it, even though such a move might not be a popular thing to do.

Baumgartner embarrassed and shamed the judicial system. Judge Ogle honored it.

— Stan Voit is editor of The Mountain Press. His column appears each Sunday. He can be reached at 428-0748, ext. 217, or e-mail to svoit@themountainpress.com.