Magazine article St. Louis Journalism Review

Media Reaction to Lazaroff Sentencing Often off Base

Magazine article St. Louis Journalism Review

Media Reaction to Lazaroff Sentencing Often off Base

Article excerpt

No one likes to be criticized. Especially judges. We were reminded of that following the media's reaction to the sentencing of attorney Michael Lazaroff, who had pleaded guilty to mail fraud and violating federal election laws.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch attacked the sentence in an Oct. 5 editorial, saying that Lazaroff "should be waking up in a penitentiary. Instead, his sentence for fraud and illegal campaign fund-raising is a month of nights in jail, 120 days of community service, restitution and 90 days of house arrest in his million-dollar Town and Country home. It's a sentence that gives new meaning to the term country club prison."

The editorial chastised U.S. District Judge Charles Shaw, who handed down the sentence, saying he was "responsible for the slap on the wrist." It even went on to imply that Shaw, a Democratic appointee, was lenient because Lazaroff was a wheeler-dealer in the Democratic Party. Shaw was disturbed by the editorial, as Bill McClellan wrote on Oct. 8. He said he asked Shaw about the case, but the judge declined to discuss it--still, McClellan noted that Shaw "was visibly upset with the criticism that has come his way, particularly from this newspaper."

As the Lazaroff case illustrates, when there's public criticism of a judge, it usually centers on a perception of inadequate sentencing. And the criticism is often far more vehement. For example, there's a case raging in Boston right now over a judge who sentenced a man to probation for the kidnapping and attempted rape of a 12-year-old boy. Several lawmakers have organized a campaign to remove the judge. And Gov. Paul Cellucci, who is backing legislation that would give the state the right to appeal a sentence, said, "We want to see a court system that protects the rights of children and victims with the same zeal with which it looks after the rights of criminals."

Now these cases are always compelling. Your average Joe is probably outraged over the Lazaroff sentencing and the sentencing in the Boston case and perhaps rightly so. But the harsh reaction has some troubling aspects. First, the public and media usually aren't privy to all the facts surrounding the sentencing. They usually don't attend the whole trial or plea-bargaining negotiations or sentencing hearing, so they really don't know everything that the judge knows when he or she hands down the sentence.

Moreover, the ethical rules governing judges generally prohibit them from "explaining" their conduct to the press and public. Notice Judge Shaw's "no comment" response to McClellan. Even if Shaw had wanted to, he was constrained from articulating his reasons for the Lazaroff sentence. It's not a fair fight--a judge has to wear a "hit me" sign and can't punch back. …

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