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.]

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