Baltimore City Public Defender Todd Oppenheim is running for judge with social justice in mind. That’s something he says doesn’t happen very often.
“It’s an anomaly,” he said in an interview with the AFRO. “Obviously, a judge can’t commit to a position, and I think that’s what my opponents really take a strict interpretation of, but everyone’s philosophy is certainly relevant to how they’re going to be as a judge.”
Oppenheim is one of two candidates challenging a group of six sitting judges for a seat in the Baltimore Circuit Court. The other is current District 1 City Councilman James B. Kraft.
Current circuit court judges Shannon E. Avery, Audrey J.S. Carrion, Michael A. DiPietro, Karen Chaya Friedman, Wanda Keyes Heard and Cynthia H. Jones are all running together, and are collectively known as the Sitting Judges.
The six judgeship candidates who receive the most votes in the April 26 primary will go on to appear on the Nov. 8 ballots. The winners will serve 15-year terms.
Oppenheim said that with social justice issues as such a large part of the local and national conversation right now, it’s remarkable that the role that judges play has not been discussed more.
“It’s so silly that we talk about criminal justice reform and we never continue the conversation to judges. I mean, they give the sentences out,” he said.
The job of a judge, obviously, is to be fair and impartial, but Oppenheim said that judges have a lot of influence – and they often make their opinions known about issues in subtle ways.
“They are ambassadors, and they are experts and their experiences in terms of sentencing and the problems that they see in the courtroom — that’s stuff that they can be vocal about. They can testify in Annapolis for things that they think need to be done. They can be part of committees that do sentencing reform, they make recommendations to different agencies…it’s something that has to be more in the forefront.”
He said that judges often brag about being tough on crime, but not many advocate for compassion. He said that as a public defender with over 10 years of experience, he’s seen firsthand how Black people and poor people can suffer unjustly under exorbitant bail and harsh sentences.
“The injustices that I’ve seen by representing my clients, some of the experiences that I’ve had in the community and my personal beliefs on social justice issues on racism in America, on sentencing practices, on mass incarceration — all those issues are really passions of mine,” he said.
“Everyone in Baltimore unfortunately is either a victim or within several degrees of someone who’s been a victim of crime, so we all know it,” he said. “Not everyone identifies with what happens to Black people in certain communities or how the police treat them or how the criminal justice system continuously turns them over.”
“I’ve seen all that because of my clients and then also some of the experiences I’ve had in the community. There are a lot of prosecutors on the other side who understand that and a lot of them obviously are African Americans so they have experiences I don’t have. But I would say that not everyone, especially a lot of judges — they don’t have both sides of that experience.”