SO IT WAS all a clerical error. At least, that's how a lawyer for Prince George's County Judge Richard A. Palumbo explained his client's decision last month to dismiss the protective order that was shielding Yvette Cade from her husband -- the husband who, three weeks later, allegedly doused her with gasoline at her workplace and set her on fire. As Post staff writers Allison Klein and Ruben Castaneda reported, attorney William C. Brennan said Judge Palumbo intended after a Sept. 19 hearing to dismiss the request by the husband, Roger B. Hargrave, to modify the protective order, not to dismiss the order itself.

We don't doubt that Judge Palumbo was, indeed, confused about what was going on in his courtroom. That much is clear from the recorded hearing, and a few comments do suggest that he meant to dismiss Mr. Hargrave's request, though the chief judge of the court disputed the judge's suggestion that a clerk was at fault. But even if he's right, his explanation is only a partial one, for he didn't just dismiss the protective order. As the following excerpt shows, he also berated Ms. Cade, as though she were asking something unreasonable of him, rather than simply imploring him to maintain the protection order he had issued some months earlier:

Ms. Cade: Well, your honor, he's violating the peace order. He's contacting my family. He's still contacting me. He's intimidating my daughter, and he's vandalizing other people's property. I want you to look at these pictures. He has a girlfriend, friend, who's like, contacting me, giving me cards. And I don't want, uh, I want an immediate absolute divorce.

Judge Palumbo: Well, I'd like to be six-foot-five, but that's not what we do here. You have to go to a divorce court for that.

Ms. Cade: Ok. Well, I want you to look at these pictures, because I don't want him to continue to think --

Judge Palumbo: Uh, this case is dismissed -- at the request -- of -- the petitioner.

Ms. Cade: He was trying to force me to go to marriage counseling.

Judge Palumbo: It might not be a bad idea, if you want to save the marriage.

Ms. Cade: I don't want to, because --

Judge Palumbo: Well, then you're in the wrong place. Get a lawyer and go to divorce court. This petition is denied -- or dismissed. I mean it's silly! You have any children?

Ms. Cade: No.

[cross talk]

Judge Palumbo: Just get a lawyer, and get a divorce. That's all you got to do. Get a lawyer and go to family court and get a divorce.

Ms. Cade: You told him that the last time.

Judge Palumbo: No, no, no, no! Ma'am, you can get a lawyer and go. He doesn't have to get it. You can go!

Ms. Cade: He's like stalling me.

Judge Palumbo: Look. Do you work?

Ms. Cade: I do, but I have a lot of bills.

Judge Palumbo: Everybody's got bills! . . . . Go see a lawyer -- a divorce lawyer.

Ms. Cade: A lawyer costs a lot of money.

Madam, if you want a divorce --

Ms. Cade: I do.

Judge Palumbo: -- go get a lawyer. . . . I can't be your lawyer. I've got to be independent, you know, like an umpire.

The problem with Judge Palumbo's conduct, in short, was not that someone checked the wrong box on a court form. It was that the judge, faced with a woman who claimed -- rightly, as it turned out -- to be highly vulnerable to physical assault, could not take the time to figure out what was going on in the case. He treated her as a scammer trying to game the system for advantage in a divorce proceeding. Ms. Cade is grievously wounded; that might have happened even had the order, now belatedly restored, been in place. But at least a court wouldn't have made her more vulnerable.