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Wright's appointment shows progress happens

July 11, 2009|By TIM ROWLAND

What if, in 1950, you had asked the average Hagerstonian the following question: Which will we see first, a black president of the United States or a female judge in Washington County?

Back then, the prospect of either might have seemed too grim to consider, but I doubt many would have thought the black president would come first.

Perhaps it's fitting Dana Moylan Wright is sworn in as Washington County's first female judge in the same year Barack Obama became president. Both are milestones of note and of consequence.

Justice is blind, they say, so male judge/female judge, it shouldn't really matter. Except it does in one important area, where perception is a key part of the equation -- domestic violence.

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Fair or unfair, there is a perception among many battered women that the judicial system is, or at least was, a boys club and the men have each others' backs. Female police officers, attorneys and prosecutors have helped change this perception to a degree, but the guy at the top in Washington County was always -- well, a guy.

He can be the most fair and impartial guy-judge in the world, but there are women out there who believe men side with men, and consequently have been reluctant to even try to take their tormentors to court.

Women also have said abuse is something like pregnancy, in the sense no male accurately can gauge the experience. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what it's like to walk out the door every morning wondering whether someone with a gun is hiding behind the hedge.

As we've seen, courts always have appeared to be reluctant to deal severely with men who treat restraining orders as so much scrap paper. Of course, the law limits, to some degree, the punishments that can be handed down, but too often -- as we saw recently in Martinsburg, W.Va. -- a sentence is suspended, an abuser does not take the punishment seriously and death is the result.

Domestic murders have happened over and over again in the Tri-State area and across the nation, with no real cry for reform in the way the justice system handles abuse. Every three or four months, we can count on another death at the hands of a man who can't control his rage.

In no other area of society would this be tolerated.

When it reached the point that drunken driving no longer could be swept under the rug, tough laws significantly reduced highway deaths. When it turned out that cell-phone use was just as dangerous as driving drunk, states began passing laws banning hand-held devices, a work that still is in progress.

Guns not withstanding, anything that kills, or might kill, is regulated beyond belief, from children's toys to foodstuffs.

Michael Vick was a danger to dogs, and he served more than two years in prison. Yet men who pose a danger to women are routinely allowed to walk. We treat the former situation with outrage, the latter with a yawn.

Naturally, a female judge doesn't change the system nor should she be expected to set existing domestic-abuse sentencing on its head.

But it's an incremental change that matters. Women need to know they are part of the system and the law does represent and protect them. Or it should.

Above all, a woman has a right to feel safe. She shouldn't have to live with the lights off, or cast a wary glance when a car pulls up next to hers at an intersection. That's no way to go through life, yet we all condone it through our indifference.

The attitude often seems to be that domestic violence is one of those icky personal situations that's between a man and a woman. It's none of our business.

Yet, if we value human life, it's our business to see the legislatures and the courts make it theirs. We never hear of a law or a cause named after a woman dead of abuse, the way laws are named after the victims of other tragedies. Just the opposite. We forget their names as soon as we put down the newspaper.

Dana Moylan Wright was appointed on her merits; she might frown as being thought of as symbolic. Yet the appointment is symbolic in the sense progress happens -- all too slowly, perhaps, but it does happen. And one day, a woman in fear for her life might be able to turn to the justice system, confident that her interests will be actively heard and her fears put to rest.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324 or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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