Montana Judge G. Todd Baugh ignited a firestorm of controversy this week when he sentenced a teacher accused of raping a 14-year-old student (who later committed suicide) to just 30 days in prison for the crime.
But it wasn’t just the sentence that Judge Baugh was criticized for, it was his comments on the case as he handed down the sickeningly light punishment to Stacey Rambold — a man who had been warned before even meeting the victim to neither be alone with nor touch his female charges back in 2004.
Yellowstone County District Judge G. Todd Baugh opined during the sentencing, essentially, that the victim bore some culpability as she appeared “older than her chronological age” and was “as much in control of the situation” as her 49-year-old teacher.
Protests are planned in Billings, where the girl attended school and was reportedly deeply shunned and shamed, leading to her tragic suicide. And Baugh has since apologized for his comments but not the sentencing, admitting that he was unsure of what he meant to say, and seemingly understanding to a degree how wrong his comments were.
A MoveOn.org petition calling for the resignation of Judge Baugh notes that the request is not an indictment of his character, but rather an acknowledgement of the severity of his error in judgement. It reads in part:
“… Baugh places the responsibility for the situation on a troubled child — one who committed suicide just two years later — and excuses the criminal actions of an adult who violated the ethical standards and trust of his community. Baugh has engaged in the worst kind of victim shaming, while increasing the possibility that more child predators, relying on the laxity of a judge who more readily sympathizes with the abuser than the abused, will prey on other children in the future. For the safety of our community, and the sake of sexual abuse victims whose confidence Baugh has lost, we ask that he resign from his public position as district court judge.”
To be sure, Judge Baugh’s comments carry tremendous weight, and coupled with the relative slap on the wrist to Rambold, compound the pain for the victim’s relatives. But is there a better way to address such an injustice that benefits both transgressor and the community?
This morning, I read a post by Ferrett Steinmetz, who authored the very virally popular “Dear Daughter, I Hope You Have Awesome Sex” post that was shared more than a million times earlier this month. In his latest post (titled “Please. Give People The Time To Be Stupid“), he muses upon blogging fame and respect for his depth of understanding — to which he explains at length that he wasn’t always not stupid.
Later in the post, he adds:
“The point I’m making is not that this flustering, idiotic reaction is okay. The world would be a much better place if nobody ever flailed so stupidly, and could accept on demand. But fighting against The Stupid Initial Reaction is like fighting against jealousy or anger or any other range of oft-unproductive human emotions. People sometimes have to say and ask some really stupid things of people regarding new experiences of any stripe before coming to the correct conclusions.”
The confluence of reading Ferrett’s words and thinking about Baugh’s subsequent fumbling apology gave me a bit of pause — sure, this judge who made a horrible mistake can lose his career, a fate many who came before him experienced at his discretion in the past. (Some likely deservedly, some perhaps not.)
But wouldn’t it be better if when, inevitably, this sort of hard lesson whose legacy may even be borne by others (such as the mother of the victim) more heavily occurs if the person at the center harnessed the attention to right the wrong?
And don’t get me wrong. It was a grievous, grievous wrong. It seems a crime in and of itself that the mother of a dead rape victim was forced to hear in open court that her 14-year-old daughter basically seduced a disgusting man four times her age, doubtlessly. A man who had, no less, been specifically warned away from doing just that, rather than rightfully being banned from ever manipulating vulnerable children again.
Judge Baugh could be unseated. He could resign, be voted out, end what is likely a long career in shame. That would satisfy a sense we all have, a totally okay sense, that things like this should not go unacted upon. He could leave, get gone, accept fault for letting a rapist off with little sanction, and have little impact on cases like this down the road.
Or, what if Baugh instead really examined the outrage and made a video? What if he, at this high profile time, explained to the public and other judges in particular exactly why his error was so harmful, how much he has now learned about why a 14-year-old girl can no more consent to sex than a mentally or developmentally disabled person can, and how pervasive rape victim blaming still is in the justice system?
This seems to happen a lot, not just with rape. Paula Deen has been effectively made a pariah for the horrible things she’s done and said. Her later apology placed much blame on the media — but could Deen have turned her fate around by expressing how big of a problem racism still is, and explaining in depth what she did wrong?
It’s difficult to say whether Judge Baugh deserves to remain a judge, whether Deen could have repaired her image, or whether such efforts would even manage to make a dent in their preceding scandals. But might it be better for us all if we worked harder at punishing people less for their ignorance and letting them help fix the mess they created?