Sitting in judgment of a Circuit Court judge

This Just In...

July 02, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

ALFRED NANCE became a judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court in 1997; the governor of Maryland, Parris Glendening, gets credit for appointing this bright star to the bench. A year later, Nance ran for a 15-year term. By then, voters didn't know if he was a good judge or a bad judge. The vast majority of us probably didn't know he was a judge at all. But that didn't stop of us from stepping behind the drapes and electing him - with eight other "trusted judges" - to dispense justice in Baltimore until our second-graders graduate from college.

How were we supposed to know that Alfred Nance was a little strange?

No one told us.

Some people apparently knew, but they didn't tell.

Even a woman who ran against the nine sitting judges in 1998 wouldn't tell. Her name is Page Croyder and today, as then, she serves in the Baltimore state's attorney's office. Her decision to challenge the judges was deemed foolish by friends, professional suicide by others in the courthouse. Her boss gave a donation to her opponents and ordered Croyder to take an unpaid leave of absence for the campaign. It was a lonely one-woman crusade.

Croyder said many smart and trenchant things about the judiciary and the way Baltimore's legal establishment protects the sitting judges and ensures they win re-election. She said she was running because some of the judges did not deserve re-election.

But Croyder was way too polite. She stopped short of naming names.

"There's pretty much agreement in the legal community that at least a couple of the judges aren't up to snuff," Croyder said. "And yet no one will say that. No one will speak up. The sitting judges' campaign calls them `Nine trusted judges.' Trusted by whom? They're trusted in the sense that they were selected through the system, nominated for judgeships and appointed [by the governor]. But they're not being judged on their performance. There is no system in place for the public to hear what we hear, to know what we know in the legal community. There are problems with some of these judges, but the public is not getting that information."

Maybe it was unrealistic to expect Croyder to name names. As an attorney, she knew about the need to support accusations with evidence and, with no one willing to come forward and join her challenge, she risked making empty charges.

She struck me at the time as a woman of integrity struggling with the daunting limitations of waging war on an old system.

She lost. The sitting judges, with The Sun's endorsement, won.

"People in the legal community know about bad judges, they know who they are, and yet it's an in-house club that discourages opposition," Croyder said during the campaign. "Some of the judges are good judges. What I'm saying is, every judge should be a good judge."

A high-minded standard that.

But bad apples get in the barrel. The problem is no one is willing to reach in and extract them - when it counts.

That's why it's galling to learn that various attorneys and judges in Baltimore knew that Alfred Nance had an abrasive personality - perhaps the wrong temperament for the post - before he was appointed. They certainly knew by the campaign summer of 1998.

But where were the whistle-blowers when it counted? Attending fund-raisers for the judges?

Friday, the state's judicial disciplinary panel issued a public reprimand of Nance, saying he had acted in "inappropriate," "undignified" and "demeaning" ways toward women in his court and private chambers.

This was in addition to being "rude" and "hostile" to lawyers representing the University of Maryland Medical System in a medical malpractice case. The reprimand came from the Commission on Judicial Disabilities, which must have a fat file on Nance by now.

The commission said that it "intends for this Public Reprimand to serve as a warning that any further such conduct by Judge Nance may well result in charges and possible further discipline."

That's nice.

Except this wasn't the first time the commission had to call Nance on the carpet.

Last year, he agreed to take "corrective action" after the commission investigated his goofy order to jail attorney Lawrence Rosenberg, who left the courtroom for six minutes because his client was not there. (When the Attorney Grievance Commission held a hearing on the matter, four of Nance's fellow Circuit Court judges, including the chief of the criminal docket, testified as character witnesses for Rosenberg. The commission dismissed the case against the attorney and chastised Nance instead.)

And then there are all those complaints about the way Nance speaks to prospective jurors, asking them personal questions and making offensive and sexist comments about some of them.

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