Wednesday, January 29, 1997
Objection, your honor; injustice done

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Off with his robes.

That's the sentence Judge Lee Hildebrandt Jr. deserves.

Don't fine him. Don't suspend him or put him on probation. Don't even make him apologize for lying about his opponent during the last election campaign.

Just remove him from office. Now.

The way Judge Hildebrandt behaved, he deserves to be kicked off the bench. Judges are held to the highest standards because they pass judgment on the rest of us. When they mess up, it's like when a cop goes bad: There's no room for leniency.

During the last election, Judge Hildebrandt couldn't tell the difference between the truth and a lie. That's a critical requirement in his job. He's a judge in the Ohio 1st District Court of Appeals in Hamilton County.

Judge Hildebrandt has held that job since 1984. He was re-elected in 1990. In November, he won with 60 percent of the vote.

During his 1996 campaign, the judge said his job is his life. ''This is my career,'' he said. ''This is the only office for which I've run.''

You'd think he'd treat something he held in such high regard with more respect.

During that same election, the judge's campaign advertising said his opponent, former Cincinnati Mayor and U.S. Rep. David Mann, voted to end the death penalty during his one term in Congress.

In Hamilton County, there's a name for an appeals court candidate who's against the death penalty. He's called a loser.

There's just one problem with saying Mr. Mann voted to end the death penalty. He didn't. Judge Hildebrandt could insist all he wanted that he ''told the truth.'' His campaign ads caught him in a lie.

On Monday, a five-judge commission appointed by the Ohio Supreme Court agreed. For the first time since the state's code of judicial conduct was revised in 1995, the commission fined and suspended a sitting judge for a campaign violation.

Judge Hildebrandt was fined $15,000. He was also ordered to pay Mr. Mann's $7,537.50 legal bill and reimburse him for $426 in expenses.

The commission - which has heard only six cases of this sort since 1995 - had the power to remove the judge from office.

If only it had exercised that power. With all the recent evidence that politicians protect their own - Newt Gingrich included - it would have restored some faith in the political process.

All the commission had to do was deliver a simple, yet admirable, decision: ''Judges are held to high standards. The top one is honesty. You did not tell the truth. You are out.''

Given a rare chance to show some courage of character, the commission's five members chickened out. Instead of giving Judge Hildebrandt a boot in the backside, it gave him a slap on the wrist.

He was fined and suspended for six months, but then the commission suspended the suspension, turning it into a six-month probation. Judge Hildebrandt can stay on the bench and decide questions of law for the rest of his six-year term. He can rule on lower court errors dealing with truths and lies through 2002.

To keep working, he must pay his fines by April 30. He must apologize in writing by Feb. 9 to Mr. Mann and the citizens of Hamilton County.

He does not have to face the people whose trust he violated. He can say he's sorry by sending a statement to the newspapers and the radio and TV stations. Apology by fax. The sorrow is in the mail.

The fines should not be too much of a burden, either. The judge's ''career'' job pays $99,950 a year. Added together, the fines will saddle him with a 22.9 percent pay cut for 1997. Spread over six years, they will reduce his annual salary by only 3.8 percent. That's a small price to pay for being allowed to continue to sit in judgment of us.

Judge Hildebrandt can appeal this decision to the Ohio Supreme Court. If he loses, the terms of his probation will still stand. If he wins, all bets are off.

Win or lose, he'll still be sitting on the bench. Those who enter his courtroom will continue to address him with the words: ''Your honor.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.