I KNOW A GUY (actually, it's me) who goes through life asking a certain question. He asks it over and over again. The first time he asked it was when he couldn't switch colleges for the summer because the registrars were feuding and the last time he remembers asking it was when the farmers parked their tractors in the middle of the street here and made life miserable. The question is a simple one. It goes like this: What does this have to do with me?
Sometimes I ask it when the waiter is fighting with the chef and the result is that the food and service suffer. I ask it when people won't talk to me because they got burned by some other journalist a long time ago and I ask it, too, when the cops and the mayor quarrel and the cops start ticketing everything in sight.
Sociologists, I'm sure, have a term for this. I call it the what-has-this-got-to-do-with-me syndrome. At its most basic, it means that whenever there's a dispute between two parties, a third party suffers. This is what happened the other day in Prince George's County and what, in truth, prompted this particular essay. In that case, a dispute between a judge and the state's attorney's office resulted in the judge's all but throwing out something like 46 cases. What he did was more complicated than that - something called "stetting" - but the end result was something familiar. The public suffered.
What happened was this: The Prince George's County state's attorney and his assistants, the people who prosecute crime in the county, went off to Ocean City for their convention. They do that every year and they notify the various judges of the county that on a certain day there will be no one available to prosecute cases. In effect, there is no court for that day - just as there is no court when the judges have their conferences. This is the way it is done every year. This is not the way, though, it was done this year.
This year, something went wrong. Someone did not get the letter. The state's attorney, Arthur Marshall, says it was sent, but the fact remains that on the day the prosecutors were in Ocean City, one judge, James M. Rea, was ready to do business. He was in court and the defendants were in court but the prosecutors were not. It appears that the judge got a little hot under the collar.
"The court is not going to cancel its business so that the prosecutors can go to a convention," he was quoted as saying. With that, he stetted the cases, a procedure that normally means that, unless the defendant is charged with yet another crime within one year, his case is closed - it dies. The state's attorney says he will not let this happen, that the cases were not properly stetted. But it appears that in some cases it may already have happened. Some people simply are not going to get tired.
This is a perfect example of the what-has-this-got-to-do-with-me syndrome. Sometimes you can understand that even when you are not a party to a dispute, there is no choice but for someone else to drag you into it. This happens when municipal workers strike for higher pay - pay you might very well want them to have - and you have to suffer for it. This happens when the independent truckers get mad at the government and you wind up getting no lettuce or when, as is now rumored, some gas station operators close down because they are having a quarrel with the Department of Energy. There is a certain logic here.
But what happened in Prince George's County should have been kept strictly between the judge and the prosecutors. Instead, the public got involved - took it right on the nose - if you happened to have been a complainant ready to testify, someone say, who took a rubber check or was assaulted. It is one thing for defendants to have their cases stetted; it is quite another thing for it to happen for what is really no good judicial reason.
Anyway, when I read the story, it rang a bell. I imagined I was neither the irate judge nor the befuddled prosecutor, but rather some complaint - some store owner who maybe caught some customer filling his pockets off the shelves. I imagined him sitting in the courtroom, waiting to see justice done, and then hearing with dismay that the case was stetted because the judge was mad at the prosecutor. I could see him rise, scratch his head and walk out of the courtroom mumbling a question I know so well - "What has this got to do with me?"
This time, though, there is yet another question as well: What has this got to do with justice?