The chief judge of Maryland's highest court has called on the state bar association to form a committee that would act as a "truth squad" in defending judges against unjust media criticism.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert Murphy told the association's annual meeting last weekend that on occasion a few reporters "do considerable damage -- unfairly, unjustly, irresponsibly -- to the valued reputations of some judges, and as a consequence to the general image of the judiciary and our profession in the mind of the public." On such occasions, Murphy said, a special lawyers committee should be "ferreting out the truth and communicating it to the public."

The bar association's former president recently suggested that the group's public awareness committee form a subcommittee assigned to this "watchdog responsibility," according to an association spokesman. But the association's new president, Charles O. Fisher, said this week that although "it's important to answer unfair charges against judges . . . I believe it could be done most effectively by the president of the association." b

Committee action, Fisher said, could take so long that the reply "wouldn't make much difference" by the time it came out.

In an interview yesterday, Murphy said he was concerned particularly by unfair or inaccurate opinion columns that "impact on trials or judges' reputations."

In his speech, he mentioned "the hastily prepared, entirely unresearched and wholly misinformed so-called expose, which by innuendo suggests or, even worse, hints at improper, even criminal conduct, on the part of some judges. . . ."

But neither in the speech nor the interview would Murphy cite specific examples of unfair or inaccurate reporting.

"I'd rather not be specific," he said yesterday. "I'm not going to start singling out things that have happened . . . I'm not going to get into a debate on it."

Murphy said judges are prohibited by their professional code of ethics from answering unfair criticism or inaccurate stories themselves. "Judges have to be somewhat remote and reticent," Murphy said, noting that they cannot engage in public discussion of matters before their court or cases pending on appeal.

In his speech, Murphy said that "irresponsible reporting" that goes unanswered "means to many that the judge must be guilty of the suggested impropriety -- because he does not rise to deny it."

Murphy said the concept of a special lawyers committee to answer criticism is "nothing new, but it's just been difficult to do."

Indeed, the American Bar Association could cite only one state bar that actually has assigned this task to a special committee.

The New York State Bar Association in 1978 set up a special four-judge subcommittee on "unwarranted criticism of courts and judges." When a judge who is criticized requests assistance, the subcommittee investigates the facts and if three members approve, a response is issued within 48 hours, according to an association spokesman. The response could be either a news release, a letter to the editor or even an interview given by one of the subcommittee judges.

The New York bar spokesman said the program "is definitely working well," noting that several follow-up stories have appeared after a response is issued.

Michael Kelly, dean of the University of Maryland Law School and chairman of a bar association judicial administration committee, said that shortly after Murphy's call for a "truth squad," he received a request from a television station to help set up a panel discussion on judicial-media relations.

"My gut reaction is that this [a panel discussion] is a more effective way to respond than creating a corps of lawyers that suddenly floods the press with letters," Kelly said. "But if the call [made by Murphy] opens up some kind of discussion, that's healthy."