When a judge stays a little too long

March 28, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

What happens to some Maryland district court judges -- and I'm not making excuses for Baltimore County's G. Darrell Russell Jr. -- is their eyes start to glaze. An opaque film appears, cataract-like, over the eyeballs as the enrobed jurist peers into the fluorescent blah of the courtroom, half-listening to testimony about some glue-sniffer who tried to get out of Rite Aid with 20 sticks of deodorant in his pants.

The judges of the district court hear this sort of thing, over and over -- along with stories of narcotics possession and vandalism, traffic violations and parking tickets, landlords and tenants, boyfriends and girlfriends, hookers and johns, bouncers and drunks, junkies and vagabonds -- and they start to daydream. They start to wonder if a career in carpeting might have been better.

I first saw the judicial glaze in the 1980s. A judge, who had been appointed to the district court after a successful career as a criminal defense attorney, drifted into a thousand-mile stare. An assistant state's attorney called case after case of marijuana possession in northwest Baltimore, and the judge's eyes glazed over. One could almost see him drifting off to Pago Pago. Or perhaps he imagined himself at the Supreme Court, or getting a massage, or maybe getting a massage at the Supreme Court.

Maybe, as he listened to all that marijuana testimony, he wondered if a little medicinal use might get him through the day.

I don't know, of course. But I remember having the distinct impression that this judge, praised for his legal intellect and courtroom acumen, had come to realize that district court dockets, while producing at times the amusing and interesting, were typically long, dull and dreary.

Being a judge at that level, for that man, was overrated.

The judges of the district courts preside over thousands of cases a year. The work calls for concentration and attention to detail, the making of sound and timely judgments, and the maintenance of procedure and propriety.

Over the last 30 years, the district courts have changed for the better, owing in large part to the quality of the judges appointed to them. Plus, when I first visited the courts, few of the judges were women or minorities, and some of the ruddy, old men in robes liked to break the monotony with sardonic humor and what today would be considered offensive comments.

There's a place for laughs at times, to be sure, but not in matters of a violent nature.

That's why the bizarre case of Judge Darrell Russell -- marrying the defendant in a domestic violence case to his alleged victim -- struck me as old school, the type of thing that would have been met with giggly chatter and foot stomping 30 years ago.

Judge Russell, who is in his late 60s, has been in the district court for 20 years. He first started getting his name in the papers in the early 1980s when he ran unsuccessfully for Baltimore County state's attorney. A few years ago, he again announced he would run for that office -- highly unusual for a sitting District Court judge -- but changed his mind when Scott Shellenberger got in the race. In 2004, Judge Russell published a book, "Chronicles from Court: In My Own Write," about being a judge.

When they closed the old district court in Dundalk, Darrell Russell said of the defendants he had seen there: "It's a lovely parade of real people, people who take the drudgery out of sitting on the bench. I'll miss it."

Yes, the drudgery. Presiding in the districts does get stale. But there are dozens and dozens of judges throughout Maryland who just deal with that and maintain their professional decorum, day after eye-glazing day. They hardly ever get their names in the papers, and a lot of them -- probably most of them -- manage to have careers without the taint of a judicial disabilities inquiry or reprimand.

Perhaps it was an effort to keep himself amused in a job that he's had for too long that prompted Darrell Russell to perform a wedding ceremony in his chambers between a Middle River guy accused of beating his fiancée and his alleged victim. The victim invoked marital privilege so that she would not have to testify against the alleged assailant. Judge Russell found the guy not guilty.

You don't need a commission to tell you that what Judge Russell did was inappropriate and worthy of the firm suggestion that this would be a good time to take that pension.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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