Glamorous Judge Under Fire

Thursday, September 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOSTON (AP) — Judge Maria Lopez has felt the soft glow of the media spotlight. As the subject of adoring profiles and stories about her marriage to a Boston newspaper publisher, she achieved a glamour few jurists attain.

But a single ruling has changed everything.

Last week, Lopez sentenced child molester Charles Horton, a 22-year-old transsexual, to home confinement, despite a prosecutor's request for eight to 10 years in prison. Since then, the spotlight on Lopez has been glaring.

Some legislators are demanding her removal from the bench, and columnists and talk show callers have vilified her.

The details of Horton's crime — while dressed as a woman, he lured a 12-year-old boy into his car and made him simulate a sex act on a screwdriver — have prompted attacks on everything from Lopez's courtroom demeanor to her flamboyant personality.

The atmosphere is so superheated that those who defend her run the risk of being labeled ``pro-pedophile.''

``People are outraged by this and want to say we ought not to idly stand by and watch it happen,'' said House Minority Leader Francis Marini, a Republican who on Wednesday filed a resolution co-signed by 47 other legislators to begin the process of removing Lopez from the bench. The resolution is given little chance of success.

Lopez did not explain herself at Horton's sentencing except to call Horton's crime ``low level.'' Outside of court, she has declined to comment except to say there were unspecified mitigating circumstances.

Some legal observers say Lopez, 47, is knowledgeable and fair. They say that if she were removed because of a legal, if unpopular, ruling, it would set a dangerous precedent. Others suggest that Lopez's gender has fed the criticism and that questions about her personal style are out of bounds.

``There's something about the coverage of this that has been particularly demeaning to her,'' said U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner.

Lopez, a Cuban emigre, was nominated in 1993 by Republican Gov. William Weld, becoming the first Hispanic woman on the state Superior Court bench.

She was a most unusual judge: The attractive Lopez was unafraid to paint flashy colors on her fingernails, go in-line skating on city streets in Spandex, or pose coyly for a newspaper photographer.

A 1994 Boston Globe profile raved about her ``energy and joie de vivre.'' Her 1995 marriage to Steven Mindich, publisher of the alternative weekly The Boston Phoenix, made newspaper feature pages, and stories about the couple often appear in the society and gossip columns.

Some of her previous rulings made headlines and prompted criticism. Among them: an order that the state pay for a transsexual's breast reconstruction, and a requirement that a man who killed his friend in a boating accident build a memorial to his victim.

Complaints of leniency were first loudly made against Lopez over a 1992 case in which she refused to keep a man in jail after his juvenile sentence for killing his 5-year-old neighbor was up.

Ed Ryan, president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, said Lopez is generally considered fair, thorough and not particularly lenient.

But after the Horton decision, Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr called Lopez ``rancid human flotsam.'' Ryan said he heard a talk show host suggest that Lopez be locked up with a child molester holding a screwdriver to her throat.

After state Rep. Jay Kaufman vowed to kill Marini's measure, he was branded ``pro-pedophile'' on a radio talk show, and a caller to his office threatened his young son.

Some have questioned the coverage of the case, which has mentioned Lopez's looks and featured a picture of her on skates.

Andrew Good, an attorney who represented au pair Louise Woodward and is vice president of the Massachusetts Association of Trial Court Lawyers, said Lopez is suffering from ``cultural bias.'' Her demeanor and her marriage to a man close to the alternative rock scene don't fit the traditional image of a judge and are being used to discredit her, he said.

Gertner thinks the bias is rooted in sexism. With the photograph of her skating, Gertner said, ``They're saying, `This is just a girl.'''

Ryan, the bar association president, said that reasonable people can debate whether Lopez's sentence was just. But to oust her because of it would be wrong.

``I don't want to think that the outcome of cases is going to be determined by the hue and cry of public opinion,'' Ryan said. ``That's a very dangerous precedent.''