Judge Handles Civil Suits Involving A Former Client

But Baldwin Removes Himself From Criminal Case

October 20, 1991|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff writer

Harford Circuit Judge Maurice W. Baldwin has handled two civil suitsinvolving a former client, even though the judge removed himself from hearing a criminal case facing the man.

The cases involve Raymond H. Warfield, a former Aberdeen commissioner awaiting trial on criminal charges that he violated county housing codes.

Baldwin had represented Warfield on private legal matters before becoming a judge in 1986, he said through his secretary, Lisa Echard,two weeks ago. Baldwin also worked with Warfield when Baldwin servedas Aberdeen's municipal attorney.

The judge removed himself from Warfield's criminal case because of the potential conflict of interest, Echard said.

Circuit Judge Stephen M. Waldron also removed himself from Warfield's case because he, too, worked with Warfield when Waldron served as Aberdeen's attorney.

But court records show that Baldwin handled two civil cases involving Warfield and his company, Edgewood Homes, which sells and installs mobile and modular houses.

Through his secretary, Baldwin declined to comment on the case aftera reporter delivered a written request for an interview to discuss why he took part in civil cases involving Warfield.

"Generally, he does not discuss litigation matters with the press," Echard said. Sheconfirmed that the judge received the letter.

Howard E. Wallin, executive secretary of the state Commission on Judicial Disabilities, said he does not believe Baldwin's involvement in the civil cases is a conflict.

"Just because the judge worked with (Warfield) doesn'tmake a conflict," said Wallin, a University of Baltimore law professor. "This kind of stuff comes up often."

Cases in which a judge had worked with parties in a suit before joining the bench are common, particularly in small counties where there are a limited number of attorneys, Wallin said.

The Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct says judges are not permitted to allow their conduct to be influenced by family, social or other relationships.

"A judge should not participate in a proceeding in which the judge's impartiality might reasonablybe questioned," the code says.

The code lists situations where judges should remove themselves from proceedings. The list includes cases in which the judge has a financial interest in the proceedings or has a "personal bias" toward a party in the proceedings.

In one ofthe civil cases, Baldwin presided over four hearings and pretrial conferences in a suit between Warfield and Edward and Neoma Amberman ofAberdeen.

At one of the conferences, Edward Amberman said, Baldwin encouraged him and his wife to settle their suit against Warfield out of court.

"(Baldwin) said he didn't want this case to go to trial," Amberman said. "But we didn't have one bit of satisfaction, nonewhatsoever."

The Ambermans were seeking $135,995 in damages from Warfield, claiming that the mobile home they bought from Edgewood Homes in 1987 had numerous defects in the materials and installation, records say.

Edward Amberman said Warfield had offered him and his wife $2,000 in an out-of-court settlement. The Ambermans refused the settlement, and the case is pending.

The hearings and conferences before Baldwin were between November 1988 and July 1990, records show.A fifth hearing, on Aug. 7, was handled by Circuit Judge William O. Carr.

In the other civil case, Warfield filed a request for a mechanic's lien against Herbert and Mary McVey of Dublin, who had purchased a modular home from Edgewood Homes for $55,500 in April 1989.

Warfield contended in his suit, filed in April 1990, that the McVeys still owed him $8,692 for the home, court records say. Baldwin signed a lien against the McVeys on June 7, 1990.

"We fought against that(lien), and the judge ruled against us," said Stanley Miller, a Baltimore attorney representing the McVeys. He noted that a lien is a preliminary step that initiates the proceedings.

Before signing the lien, Baldwin explained to Miller and the McVeys that he personally knows Warfield, but the couple did not believe the relationship would "prejudice" the judge, the attorney said.

"In my opinion, I don't think there were any irregularities on the part of the judge," Miller said.

The McVeys have filed a countersuit against Warfield claiming that he did not properly install the modular home, records say. In the suit, which has not come to trial, the McVeys seek $75,500 in damages.

Warfield had been represented by Harold D. Norton, a lawyer with the Brown, Brown and Brown firm of Bel Air, where Baldwin workedas a partner before becoming a judge. Norton has since withdrawn from the case.

In the criminal proceedings, Warfield is accused of ignoring warnings from county inspectors that he would face charges unless he corrected violations, including a lack of heat and proper plumbing, at a mobile home the McVeys rented while waiting for their new home to be readied for occupancy.

Warfield, 51, is accused of failing to secure the home on blocks and install proper steps and landings at front and back doors, the complaint says.

He also is charged with failing to obtain county permits or to have the home inspected, as required by housing codes.

Warfield, who stepped down as an Aberdeen commissioner in May after 14 years in office, faces up to $5,500 in fines and 32 months in prison if convicted.

County prosecutors, however, are concerned that Warfield will not stand trial for at least another year because two of the county's four judges -- Baldwin and Waldron -- have removed themselves from the case.

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