Some judges err on rules of decorum

Objections raised to improper remarks, 'meatball justice'

  • Judge G. Darrell Russell Jr. says he wasn't aware of the seriousness of the charges when he wedded a woman and the man charged with abusing her.
Judge G. Darrell Russell Jr. says he wasn't aware of the… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
April 05, 2010|By Nick Madigan | nick.madigan@baltsun.com

There was the Maryland judge who was accused of letting the air out of a janitor's tires. And the one who ordered a spectator to jail for 10 days because she had called out "love you" to her handcuffed brother.

How about the judge who was found to have paid for sex with a prostitute in his chambers?

Ostensibly, they are embodiments of probity, stern arbiters of right and wrong, evenhanded enforcers of the law. But sometimes the things judges say and do get them into as much hot water as the defendants awaiting judgment before them.

Last month, Baltimore County District Judge G. Darrell Russell Jr., a 19-year veteran of the bench, agreed to perform a marriage ceremony between a Middle River man and the woman he was charged with abusing. After the nuptials, the new bride invoked spousal privilege and declined to testify against her husband - whereupon the judge found the man not guilty.

"I can't sentence you as a defendant in any crimes," Russell told the groom. "I sentenced you to life married to her."

His actions provoked an uproar; two years shy of his mandatory retirement at 70, he has been suspended from hearing cases while a state panel investigates.

"There's a difference between a mistake that a lawyer would disagree with, and appeal, and a mistake that outrages the public," said Thomas J. Fitton, president of the conservative group Judicial Watch. "You want people to have confidence that justice is going to be administered fairly."

Russell has said he was mortified that he had appeared insensitive to the plight of abused women, and insisted that he had not known the particulars of the allegations against Frederick D. Wood before he acquiesced to a defense attorney's request that he allow the couple to marry. The prosecutor did not object, Russell said.

"I would like to tell the advocacy groups that I do indeed understand domestic violence," he told The Baltimore Sun. "Perhaps they should try being in my shoes as a judge. Ain't always easy."

Indeed, the rush of court business, with hundreds of cases vying for closure in a system often overwhelmed, means that judges sometimes dispense what Fitton calls "rough justice."

"They always seem to be running down the field, throwing lateral passes," he said. "But it's their job to make sure the pressure on them doesn't lead to mistakes. They're being paid to not make mistakes."

Charles County Circuit Judge Robert C. Nalley was suspended from sitting on criminal cases last year pending an investigation into why he let the air out of a car's tire near the La Plata courthouse. A sheriff's deputy had observed Nalley deflating the right rear tire of a 2004 Toyota Corolla that a member of the courthouse's cleaning crew had parked in a restricted area.

Nalley pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of vehicle tampering. He is scheduled to testify later this month before the state Commission on Judicial Disabilities, which can recommend to the Court of Appeals that a judge be censured or fired.

Also last year, Baltimore Circuit Judge Alfred Nance, who has three times been the subject of disciplinary investigations, ordered 24-year-old Tamika Clevenger jailed for calling out to her brother, a defendant, in the courtroom.

Nance, who rescinded the order after a public defender spoke up for Clevenger, had been issued a rare public reprimand in 2001 by the judicial disabilities commission for behaving in an "undignified" and "demeaning" manner toward women.

Four female prosecutors had formally accused the judge of having an "explosive temper" and of making inappropriate comments about their appearance. In one instance, Nance ordered a prospective juror, a single woman, to stand up so that everyone in court could look at her. "There may be a single guy out there," he said.

In 2008, Baltimore County District Judge Bruce S. Lamdin was suspended for a month without pay for courtroom comments that included disparaging remarks about drug treatment programs and the Baltimore criminal justice system, a joke that the county's Circuit Court judges spend their afternoons sipping cocktails, and profanity rare from the bench.

It was the harshest punishment for a Maryland judge in more than two decades.

Court transcripts quoted Lamdin's remarks in 2006 to a woman charged with prostitution in both Baltimore County and the city: "Who put up your bond money for you - your pimp? ... Business must be good. ... If I were to release you, you'd be scratching that itch tonight. ... You may be able to get some crack down there ... I should just let you go to Baltimore City - they'll give you the key to the city and then send you on your way. ... They don't care about prostitution in Baltimore City. ... They treat prostitution like spitting on the sidewalk."

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