Complaints filed against Maryland judges disappear into what critics call a black hole that lets no light or substance escape.
The Commission on Judicial Disabilities, set up 27 years ago to handle complaints of misconduct or bias, operates in secrecy. Critics say it is underfunded, understaffed, reluctant to punish and too packed with judges to render impartial decisions.
During the panel's lifetime, only three judges have been removed as a result of its investigations -- all for fixing traffic tickets.
The commission takes months and often more than a year to investigate complaints. Those who file grievances -- even other judges -- say they rarely find out what has happened as a result.
"I am the head of the District Court, and I am told absolutely nothing," said Chief Judge Robert J. Sweeney, who forwards complaints from residents about members of his bench. "They don't believe me when I say, 'I took it and I filed it, and I have not heard one word back.' They say, 'But you're the chief judge!' "
As a result, the commission has lost credibility with the legal profession and the public.
Joseph I. Cassilly, Harford County state's attorney, said he knew for years that women lawyers were complaining about the conduct of Harford District Court's administrative judge. But he said he decided not to go to the Judicial Disabilities Commission.
"There's a perception that nothing will happen," he said. And having made a complaint with no results, "You're still stuck. You're still there appearing before the guy, or woman. You're out there with no protection."
Instead, the Harford lawyers waited for Judge John S. Landbeck's renomination hearing before the Maryland Senate. Rather than face a confirmation battle, Judge Landbeck announced Wednesday that he would not seek a second term.
The commission's defenders, including past members, say the panel is far more active than it seems. They say it operates informally, persuading judges to change or retire quietly.
Many also defend the secrecy, calling it necessary to protect the independence of the judiciary. "So many complaints are unfounded," said Judge Theodore G. Bloom of the Court of Special Appeals, who chaired the panel through 1994. He and others estimated that 50 percent to 70 percent of the complaints are filed by people who lost their cases -- and assumed the fix was in.
"The idea of confidentiality was to guard against that," Judge Bloom said. "The principal function of the Judicial Disabilities Commission is to keep the judiciary in line, and not to satisfy the public."
Calls for reform
Baltimore County Circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe, the panel's new chair, said she understands the public's frustration -- and shares it.
As a commission member, under current rules, "You can't even comment whether there is a complaint pending," she said.
Judge Howe supports proposed rule changes that would open misconduct proceedings, create deadlines for investigations and notify complainants of the outcome.
Those changes could be adopted by the Court of Appeals as early as March, and put into effect by July 1, said Chief Judge Alan M. Wilner of the Court of Special Appeals, chairman of the judiciary subcommittee that oversees the commission.
If Maryland's judges won't change the commission, critics may do it.
Spurred by women's rights groups angered by judges' remarks in two Baltimore County cases, some legislators are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would make fundamental changes in the commission.
They envision a new, more powerful discipline panel with more open procedures, more lay members and a full-time investigative staff.
"One of the problems with the current commission is they have no budget and no staff. That's probably why nothing happens. And quite frankly, people are not going to stand for it anymore," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, the Pikesville Democrat who is drafting the amendment.
While some changes could be made by the legislature or the judiciary itself, increasing the number of lay members requires a constitutional amendment.
Voters in Pennsylvania and California recently approved constitutional changes in their judicial discipline panels that eliminated the dominance of judges.
Complaints against judges fall into two general categories. One is official misconduct, which can include bribery, ticket fixing and conflicts of interest.
The other, more difficult to deal with, category involves bias, fairness and conduct on the bench.
For example, Maryland's overwhelmingly male judiciary has come under fire from women's groups who complain of insensitivity and bias toward women in domestic violence, sexual assault and child support cases.
By the numbers, Maryland has one of the least active judicial discipline commissions in the country, according to The Center for Judicial Conduct Organizations.