The sentences raise eyebrows:
* A Wisconsin judge gave three years probation to a man convicted of sexually assaulting a 5-year-old girl because, he said, the girl was a "sexually promiscuous young lady."
* A California judge reduced a first-degree murder conviction to second degree because he said the slayer did not act in a "premeditated and deliberate" way when he stabbed his victim 130 times.
* A Pennsylvania judge put an armed robber--out on bail for a previous conviction when he committed the crime--on probation for five years, because prisons are "inhumane and degrading."
Such court decisions prompted the Washington Legal Foundation, one of a new breed of conservative "public interest" law firms, to launch the Court Watch Project, asking its 80,000 members across the country to monitor judges and report any who appeared to be giving criminals slap-on-the-wrist sentences.
"We hit a nerve," said WLF head Daniel Popeo of the project, which began last year. "We got bags and sacks of letters and support."
Complaints and newspaper clippings about judges who are soft on crime are now pouring into the group's headquarters here at the rate of "10 a day, six days a week," he said.
"There is a tremendous breakdown in the public's mind of the effectiveness of the criminal justice system," Popeo said. Court Watch was needed, he said, to counteract the "tremendous pro-criminal lobby" made up of liberal organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, which he calls the American Criminal Lovers Union.
After reading Court Watch reports, the Washington Legal Foundation selects the most egregious cases, and writes letters asking the judges involved to justify their actions. It has written more than 500 letters so far.
The campaign would bear special significance for judges who are elected rather than appointed. According to the National Center for State Courts, about 30 states elect lower state court judges, the judges who sentence in most criminal cases. But the threat is equally as weighty for those judges who are appointed for set terms.
One letter was fired off Monday to a Missouri judge who made headlines when he sentenced a university professor who had killed his wife with a hammer to 60 days in jail.
Another sentence in which a Massachusetts judge freed on bail a doctor accused of raping two women patients, even though he had been convicted earlier of raping a nurse, drew a sharp response. "The court's action can accurately be labeled an outrage," the foundation charged in a letter.
In a local case, the foundation asked D.C. Superior Court Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr., who sentenced a man to 18 to 54 months in jail after he pleaded guilty to killing a 20-month-old girl, "By what strange reasoning or process did you arrive at such a lenient sentence?"
"In our view, the sentence dangerously approaches the level of judicially sanctioning child abuse and infanticide," the group said. "The Washington Legal Foundation believes that if you are unable or are unwilling to mete out appropriate sentences for violent crimes, you should seriously consider resigning from the bench."
If the group doesn't receive a satisfactory response from a judge, it files a complaint with the state judicial review commission. Six complaints are currently pending, and the foundation is about to lodge another five.
Apparently, however, when the Washington Legal Foundation talks, many judges listen.
"I have tried many murder cases, and this is the first time I've ever reduced a first-degree murder conviction in my 10 years on the Superior Court," California Judge Peter S. Smith told the group, noting that he was appointed to the bench by former governor Ronald Reagan and has "a reputation as a hard sentencer."
Legal Foundation lawyers believe their letters make a difference. "In the next case, that judge is going to be a little more sensitive to the victim and the public, and that's a beneficial effect," said lawyer Nicholas E. Calio.
In an expansion move, the foundation is about to expand the Court Watch program. It has printed 50,000 copies of a "Court Watch Manual" to send to various groups detailing how to set up local court-monitoring programs.
The manual suggests activities for "concerned citizens" who want "to hold judges, parole boards, prosecutors and other criminal justice personnel accountable for their actions." Such groups are already active in California and Illinois.
Recommendations include monitoring court proceedings, recall drives; letters to newspapers complaining about lenient judges or parole boards; demonstrations in front of courthouses; newspaper advertisements criticizing a judge's handling of a case, and a 'worst judge' award to those too lenient with criminals and who disregard the rights of victims.
Some critics say the Court Watch project represents a dangerous attack on judicial independence.
"I never thought it was proper for judges to sentence out of fear," Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Albert W. Barney, chairman of the Conference of Chief Justices, said of the project. "If that's the way they're going to do business it's somewhat extortionate."
Barney noted that judges are often hamstrung by pre-existing legal rules or errors by police that keep evidence from being introduced, and are unable to explain seemingly lenient sentences because of confidentiality requirements.
"The judge gets blamed for all of these things," he said. "I don't really think that it's very satisfactory to key in on whether a sentence appears to the outsider to be lenient."
John Shattuck of the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that "judges need to be kept apart from lobbyists."
"Maybe members of Congress have to take the heat," Shattuck said, "but judges should be making their decisions based on the evidence before them, and not on letters coming in from any political group of whatever stripe."
"We've never received a nasty letter from a judge," Popeo countered. "We feel we are really protecting the judicial establishment from the attacks of the ACLU and the rest of the criminal defense lobby."