The Germantown woman thought she had convincing evidence that her husband had struck her repeatedly, held a handgun to her chest for two hours and tried to poison her with sleeping medicine.
But when she took him to court in Upper Marlboro on assault charges, the woman recounted this week for a Maryland judicial committee, the judge threw out the case, saying that he did not believe her. He did not consider medical evidence or listen to witnesses, the woman asserted.
The judge said, " 'I don't believe anything like this could happen to me. I wouldn't take that kind of abuse,' " the Germantown woman told the committee composed of four judges and five lawyers, saying that the ruling "left me in a state of shock."
She was among more than a dozen women and men, many with emotional stories of justice denied, who showed up to testify in Rockville before a committee seeking information on the existence and extent of sex bias in Maryland courts.
Members of the committee expressed sympathy for the witnesses, but went a step further, asking for court docket numbers to follow up on their accounts.
Rosalyn B. Bell, a judge in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and the only female judge on the committee, told the Germantown woman, "I don't know when I've ever been so moved."
With the appointment of the committee by Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy of Maryland's Court of Appeals earlier this year, Maryland has joined a number of states that have begun investigations into the ways sex bias can affect court cases, court hiring and judicial appointments.
The issue first emerged nationally in 1980 at the instigation of the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund.
New Jersey and New York were among the first states to launch such studies. In those states, committees concluded that sex bias was pervasive in the court systems, and in New York, had adverse effects on female litigants, lawyers and court employes. In those states, systemwide surveys of lawyers and court employes have resulted and special judicial education programs and changes in court personnel practices have been instituted.
It's an issue "that needs long, ongoing scrutiny and self-examination" that "goes beyond consciousness-raising," said Lynn Hecht Schafran, director of the national judicial education program for the NOW fund.
The witnesses appearing before the Maryland committee this week maintained that bias by mostly male judges was a focal point for a pervasive problem that affects the entire court system and that requires serious long-term study.
Eliminating sex bias in Maryland's legal system "is a big task" that "has to start with the behavior of judges," said one witness, Rockville lawyer Roger Titus.
Women and organizations representing women described the "feminization of poverty" that often results when divorce splits families. They spoke of women going without heat and losing houses when child support payments failed to materialize. They said that the same courts that come down hard on a woman who denies visitation to a husband will be slow to prosecute a man who refuses to pay child support.
Nationally, according to several witnesses, only 22 percent of the women who are awarded child support are able to collect it entirely, and women whose income is greatly diminished in divorce are often unable to hire lawyers.
Men, including members of the Silver Spring-based Fathers United for Equal Rights Foundation, came to the hearing to talk about "father-bashing" and "maternal preference," or the notion that men are by nature less suitable than women as custodial parents. Nationally, 90 percent of the custody cases are decided in favor of women, said Bruce Burrows, a spokesman for Fathers United. Men also spoke of the double standard they perceive: that courts throw them in jail for withholding child support and rarely jail women for denying visitation.
Court attitudes must be altered "to reflect the fact that children have an inalienable right to both parents, or at the very least, that neither parent be prejudicially removed from the equation because of gender bias," Burrows said.
Lawyers told the task force about judges -- none of them named -- who make sexist observations about pretty young witnesses during court proceedings and who make other crude remarks about women in public. One judge told a classroom of students that to add up the number of female judges in Maryland -- there are 20 out of 221 statewide -- "he counted the number of breasts and divided by two," Titus said.
Courtroom bantering and tittering over female witnesses is viewed by some judges as a way to "lighten things up," said Rockville lawyer Jo Benson Fogel, who described her experiences with one such judge. As a result, "gender bias is part of the air one breathes in the courtroom," she said. "The judge is in charge of demeanor," but when one is openly sexist, "it causes the entire proceeding to degenerate into one where there is no respect for the law," she said. " . . . I don't see malicious intent, but it demeans the court and destroys the participants."
Hannah Sassoon, who assists victims referred to the county's program for abused women, told the committee that a woman who files charges of assault and battery against her husband will find her motivations, not the merits of the case, being examined. Such a woman is "often faced with the prospect of obtaining a reasonable divorce settlement on the condition that she drop the criminal charge," Sassoon said.
The committee will hear testimony at the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro Sept. 30.