Judge accused of poor conduct

Reprimanded in 2001, Nance faces new charges

He denies wrongdoing

Massaging of prosecutor among state allegations

August 25, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Circuit Judge Alfred Nance, reprimanded three years ago for inappropriate conduct, has been accused again by a state judicial disciplinary panel and faces a rare public hearing next month in connection with the charges.

According to documents reviewed yesterday by The Sun, Nance is alleged to have made an "unwelcome" gesture to a city prosecutor by massaging her shoulder and is also charged with criticizing the way a prospective juror was wearing his yarmulke in court last year.

The judge has been the subject of several complaints in the past, and in 2001 received a stinging public reprimand from the state's Commission on Judicial Disabilities, which found that he acted in "undignified" and "demeaning" ways toward women in his court and private chambers.

According to the most recent charges, made public yesterday, in June 2003 Nance chastised from the bench the man wearing a yarmulke, the traditional Jewish headcovering for men.

"Now, I've seen yarmulkes worn in many different ways, but not that one," Nance said, according to the document. "Now, if you want to wear a yarmulke in my courtroom, out of respect for your religion, you will wear it respectfully or take it off in my courtroom."

The commission found "probable cause to believe that the Judge has committed sanctionable conduct" in both cases, according to the documents.

Neither the judge nor his lawyer, Alvin I. Frederick, returned calls seeking comment yesterday.

However, Nance denied wrongdoing in written filings to the panel.

"The judge disputes the facts with respect to the alleged incidents in question and further believes that no sanctionable conduct occurred," Frederick wrote in one response.

Nance, 56, a former public defender who later founded a law firm, was appointed to the city Circuit Court by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1997.

The next year, Nance won election to a 15-year term.

Possible options

If the 11-member disciplinary panel finds Nance guilty of misconduct, he can be publicly reprimanded again, or the panel can refer the case to the Court of Appeals.

The state's highest court can impose a sanction ranging from a private warning to removal from office.

Nance is charged with violating four of the six canons of Maryland's code of judicial conduct, including integrity, avoidance of impropriety, and being patient, dignified and courteous, according to the code.

Unlike in 2001 - when Nance avoided an open hearing by accepting a public reprimand - the judge decided to fight these charges. He was the last judge publicly reprimanded in Baltimore.

The Commission on Judicial Disabilities rarely holds public hearings. The last one was in 2002, shortly before the panel reprimanded Montgomery County Circuit Judge Durke G. Thompson for out-of-court comments he made about a sex-abuse case pending before him.

Nance's lawyer filed several motions to the commission to dismiss the case, and filed similar briefs to the Court of Appeals.

The appeals court denied Nance's motion, and the commission has denied several motions.

But the panel set an open hearing for Sept. 27 to hear Nance's request that the commission dismiss the case or recuse itself from the matter.

Panel accused of bias

In his motion, Nance argues that the commission is biased because it already charged him with the violations, and therefore cannot be an impartial judge in his case.

If the case proceeds after the hearing next month, another public hearing is set for Oct. 21 to consider the charges against the judge.

Baltimore Circuit Court Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland said she was not able to comment on the case yesterday, saying she was not familiar with the charges.

"They keep those matters separate from us here," Holland said.

The alleged shoulder massage happened Dec. 2, 2002, when Nance was presiding over arraignment court, documents show. They state that during a recess, the judge removed his robe and, while he was wearing business attire, approached the prosecutor.

"Judge Nance then placed his hand on her shoulder and massaged or rubbed it in a manner that was inappropriate," the charging document alleges. "This action by Judge Nance was unwelcome, uninvited and was inappropriate conduct for a Circuit Court Judge."

Nance's account of what happened that day is different, according to a filing by his lawyer.

"While exiting the courtroom, he paused and complimented the prosecutor for the manner in which she handled her docket on the date in question," Frederick wrote. "In doing so, he tapped her shoulder. He did not perform a massage on the Assistant State's Attorney; nor did he do anything that could be remotely constructed in acting in a sexual manner."

Placement of yarmulke

In reference to the placement of the yarmulke, the judge asserts in his response that the yarmulke was sitting on the juror's forehead.

"When any item of clothing is worn in a rakish manner, it is likely to draw attention because it reeks of a lack of respect," the document says, adding that the judge raised the issue "in this instance solely to maintain decorum in his courtroom."

The panel investigated for nine months before formally charging the judge.

The allegations are similar to ones made in 2001, when the commission criticized Nance for his behavior toward women.

The panel also decided Nance was "rude" and "hostile" to lawyers in a medical malpractice case.

Nance was temporarily barred from hearing criminal cases in 2000 after Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy accused him of bias against her office.

He was subsequently reinstated to preside over a criminal docket. Because judges rotate the types of cases they hear, Nance currently takes civil cases.

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