Judicial discipline breaks down in Md.

I thought that the police disciplinary process in Baltimore moved at a glacial pace. But that was before I learned the history of the disciplinary action taken against Baltimore District Court Judge Devy Patterson Russell.

Disciplinary charges were filed against her on Jan. 16, 2018, alleging she had violated provisions of the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct governing demeanor and comportment. A hearing with 21 witnesses (15 of them also judges) was held over multiple days that fall before the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities, and a report was issued Nov. 30 saying Judge Russell should immediately be suspended from the bench for six months.

Instead, she was temporarily reassigned to Anne Arundel County District Court, where, nearly three months later, she was still on the bench and able to deny Tyrique Hudson’s request for a peace order against his downstairs neighbor in a Glen Burnie apartment building. And she was still on the bench two months after that, on April 15, 2019, when Mr. Hudson was killed outside his apartment with a shotgun. Police charged the neighbor, who reportedly confessed, with his murder.

In fairness, none of the disciplinary charges against Judge Russell involved how she handled cases before her. And, based on the transcript, her denial of the peace order request may have been questionable, but was not obviously out of bounds.

Both considerations, however, are beside the point. A man was killed, and his family and friends are justifiably angry that his fate may have been in the hands of a judge facing a six-month suspension because she had been found to be “volatile and unpredictable” by the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities. It was a situation that never should have been allowed to occur.

According to testimony during her fall hearing, the chief judge of the Maryland District Court questioned Judge Russell’s “mental well-being.” She interrupted another judge’s trial in progress to ask two attorneys at the trial table to get out their calendars to schedule a case assigned to her. She insulted other judges, and yelled and screamed at them and other employees in numerous and various contexts.

The report recommending her suspension found Judge Russell to be “volatile, unpredictable, and responsible for the enormously difficult work environment in the Baltimore City District Court.” It concluded that “the comments and behaviors of Judge Russell were undignified, uncooperative, discourteous, demeaning, and clearly demonstrate a pattern of serious violations . . . that strike at the very heart of the integrity of the judiciary and the public’s confidence in such integrity.”

But the commission’s report isn’t the final word on discipline when it comes to judges. That belongs with the Court of Appeals. The court’s rules require it to schedule an expedited hearing on discipline recommended by the commission.

That hearing was held on March 4, 2019 – 90 days after the commission’s report and 412 days after the commission’s counsel filed disciplinary charges. Those 412 days do not include the months it took to investigate the complaints made against Judge Russell before charges were filed.

The Court of Appeals still has not issued its decision.

Taking the time to be fair to a judge facing discipline is important. But so, as the commission’s report noted, is preserving public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary. A system that allows a matter to go unresolved as long as this one has is farcical.

[Published as an op ed by the Baltimore Sun on May 15, 2019 but not posted to my blog until December 18, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Mr. Mayor: Call a press conference and lay the cards on the table.

I’m not big on optics, but as it turned out it probably would have been better for Mayor Jack Young to return to Baltimore from Detroit upon learning of Catherine Pugh’s resignation on Thursday. Friday’s bloodbath in Baltimore put an exclamation point on the city’s need for a mayor who is on the ground and fully-engaged in the battle against the violence.

There have been many bad days in Baltimore over the past four odd years, but few worse than yesterday, Mayor Young’s first full day on the job. Two infants, a one year old and a two year, were among the twelve shooting victims in Baltimore on Friday. Fortunately, the infants survived. Three other victims did not.

You’re coming back tomorrow, Mr. Young, and my first unsolicited piece of advice to you is to have an honest conversation with the people of Baltimore as soon as possible. Talk with your police commissioner and schedule a press conference with him in the next few weeks. Ask Mr. Harrison to lay out his plan, in as much detail as possible, on how he is deploying the men and women of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) to reduce the rate of deadly and non-deadly shootings in the city.

For example, is he going to use special-purpose units like the TIGER (Tactical Intelligence Gathering and Enforcement Response) unit that he used in New Orleans? What is he going to do to get the known or suspected trigger-pullers off the streets?

It may be that Mr. Harrison lacks confidence in his commanders and supervisors at this point and does not believe that the BPD is ready to employ more proactive policing, leery of a repeat of the days of the GTTF and other abuses by the BPD. If so, how long is it going to take to get the BPD up to speed?

I believe it is time for honesty, if nothing else. If the citizens can expect more days like yesterday, tell them that, and explain why. If the new mayor and the relatively new police commissioner want to retain the trust and confidence of the people, they must talk to them and tell them what they are doing about the carnage on the streets of their city. If the mayor and police commissioner want people to be patient, they are going to have to ask for that patience and explain why.

And, finally, Mr. Mayor, I’d like to see you do this: Acknowledge to citizens that controlling the violence is going to require the return of more aggressive policing, and that it will not make everyone happy. And declare your support for the commissioner and the BPD in rolling out such tactics. That will take more political courage than you’ve displayed in the past, but the problems of the city are not going to be solved without its leaders taking some political risks to which they are not accustomed.

You’re dealing with killers in Baltimore who have no compunction about shooting babies. I think most citizens understand that requires bolder action than we saw under your predecessor.