Judges spend a fair bit of time thinking about the mistakes of others. They listen attentively while people who’ve made bad decisions try to explain their actions or ask for forgiveness. And then, if the mistake is bad enough to warrant community concern, they dole out an appropriate penalty. The law is there to guide the judge, of course, but in the end, a presumption of judicial wisdom provides the ultimate authority.
Sometimes, though, mistakes happen on the other side of the bench. For all their god-like power, judges occasionally get it horribly wrong. They overlook a vital part of the evidence or weigh another part unfairly; they allow their own prejudices to corrupt their judgements; they punish too much or not enough; they say incredibly stupid things.
These things don’t happen often, but when they do, who will judge the judges? In the case of Montana District Judge G. Todd Baugh, who recently sentenced a convicted rapist to 30 days in jail and called 14-year-old Cherice Moralez “as much in control of the situation” as the adult teacher who raped her, there is no shortage of people wanting to vent their anger. An online petition demanding Judge Baugh step down has gathered more than 43,000 signatures so far. Hundreds of protestors, many of whom are affiliated with the National Organization for Women, have staged demonstrations outside the Billings courthouse where 54-year old Stacey Dean Rambold received his 30 day sentence, carrying signs demanding “Justice 4 Cherice” or simply reading, “Resign”. Collectively, the community is giving its judgement.
Judge Baugh at first attempted to defend his claim that Cherice, who he described as “older than her chronological age,” had been an active participant in the illegal sexual relationship. “Obviously, a 14-year-old can’t consent. I think that people have in mind that this was some violent, forcible, horrible rape,” Baugh said on August 26. “It was horrible enough as it is, just given her age, but it wasn’t this forcible beat-up rape.” The next day, he was forced to apologize. “I don’t know what I was thinking or trying to say,” the judge told reporters. “It was just stupid and wrong.”
As yet, there has been no apology for the light sentence. In 2010, as the case originally went to court with Rambold facing three counts of sexual intercourse without consent, Cherice decided she’s had enough. She climbed into her mother’s bed and shot herself. With the principal witness now dead, prosecutors agreed to a “deferred prosecution agreement”, meaning that the charges would be dropped if Rambold completed a sex-offender treatment program and avoided all contact with children.
Rambold failed to follow both of these conditions, which brought him before Judge Baugh. The former teacher was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, of which all but 31 days were suspended by the judge. Rambold was also given credit for the one day he had spent in jail.
On hearing the judge’s decision, Cherice’s mom yelled out “You people suck!” Auliea Hanlon later told CNN that the ruling will do nothing to help other young victims of rape. “It discourages other kids from coming forward,” she said. “If they come forward, what’s going to happen? Nothing.”