Judge's conduct scrutinized

Md. Court of Appeals considers discipline for comments, actions

December 01, 2007|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

They asked whether the judge's bad behavior had stopped. They wondered aloud how he could not have known the high standards of professionalism expected of someone wearing a judicial robe. And they asked whether he had apologized to the colleagues he impugned in open court when he spoke disparagingly of the Circuit Court benches of Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

Five judges of Maryland's highest court peppered an attorney for Baltimore County District Judge Bruce S. Lamdin with questions yesterday, as they consider whether to suspend or otherwise sanction the judge for profane and discourteous comments that violated Maryland's judicial code of conduct.

Asked whether Lamdin's misconduct has ceased, not just that no new complaints have been filed, attorney Alvin I. Frederick told the Court of Appeals judges: "Let's be clear. You'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind to not realize that ... if you do something like this again, something bad is going to happen."

But Judge Lynne A. Battaglia, chairwoman of the state's Court Commission on Professionalism, countered that it was difficult to understand how Lamdin could have been unfamiliar with the expectations for appropriate judicial conduct before being informed that the state panel that investigates complaints about judges had opened a file on him.

"It seems to me that you'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind to not be aware of the emphasis we put on professionalism," Battaglia said.

Lamdin, 59, attended yesterday's hearing but did not address the court and declined to comment afterward. He sat in the audience with two of the three judges who have mentored him since the misconduct allegations were raised, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill Jr. and Baltimore County District Judge Robert J. Steinberg.

The hearing in Annapolis was the first such case since 1984, when the high court removed a judge from office for forging court documents.

The investigation into Lamdin's conduct began in November 2005, when a Reisterstown man filed a formal complaint about the judge's handling of traffic cases Sept. 2, 2005. After receiving the complaint, the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities ordered audio recordings of several weeks' worth of hearings from Lamdin's courtroom.

Captured on the recordings were Lamdin's disparaging remarks about drug treatment programs and the correctional officers who staff the state's prisons, a joke that the county's Circuit Court judges spend their afternoons sipping cocktails rather than working, and profanity not normally heard from the bench.

According to court transcripts, he joked that one defendant couldn't seem to keep from stepping in piles of excrement -- but not in those terms.

The transcripts also show that he used a slang term for oral sex while sentencing a woman on prostitution charges. And he told one defendant that the Baltimore City courts system would likely "give [her] a key to the city and then send [her] on her way" rather than punish her for her criminal behavior.

The commission charged Lamdin last year with 20 instances of sanctionable conduct between September 2005 and May last year, although the panel's lawyer dropped six of those charges after the judge agreed that his comments in the remaining cases violated the code of judicial conduct.

The commission recommended in August that he be suspended without pay for 30 days -- one of the toughest sanctions the panel has suggested in years.

Frederick, an attorney for the judge, asked the appeals court yesterday not to suspend his client -- or to at least consider requiring him to surrender only his net pay, which would preserve his insurance benefits and pension.

"This was one bad act -- albeit a bad one," Frederick told the court.

Battaglia seemed to disagree.

"You say one event -- it's a series of events," she responded. "It's repeated behavior over a period of time."

Frederick acknowledged that was correct, but he pointed out that Lamdin learned of the various complaints at one time and quickly sought guidance from three judges who have been serving as his mentors since then.

He told the appeals court that many of Lamdin's missteps were the result of trying to speak to criminal defendants in the language he used when speaking to clients during his 30-year career as a defense attorney.

Frederick also emphasized that no new complaints have been filed since the public charges were brought against Lamdin.

The commission that brought the charges against Lamdin is a little-known panel that does much of its work in secret.

Neither the complaints it receives nor any subsequent investigations become public unless the panel's investigative counsel decides to file charges against a judge -- something that happened only three times out of the 117 written complaints received during the fiscal year that ended in June.

Gary J. Kolb, an attorney and the executive secretary of the commission, said he could not say whether the panel had received more complaints about Lamdin, because of regulations governing the commission.

Peter E. Keith, special investigative counsel for the commission, told the appeals court that one of its jobs in weighing the case was "effectively policing the judiciary" and ensuring the public's confidence in the state's judges.

"You are making a statement about a body of behavior and how bad it is," he said. He later added, "At the end of the day, the commission did its job conscientiously and decided that it was better to set the bar high rather than low."

The Court of Appeals judges did not indicate when they expect to reach a decision in the case.

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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