Baltimore judge under fire again for courtroom comments

Court commission charges Baltimore Chief Judge Alfred Nance with inappropriate behavior on bench.

For at least the third time, Maryland's panel that oversees judges' conduct has publicly moved to discipline a longtime Baltimore judge for inappropriate behavior on the bench.

Judge Alfred J. Nance, 68, who is currently the chief judge for Baltimore, was charged by the Commission on Judicial Disabilities for a series of "persistently disrespectful and unprofessional" interactions with a public defender, Deborah K. Levi.

The commission cited the judge's actions in four cases in documents made public Tuesday. In one of them, a murder case, Nance mocked and scolded Levi before threatening to throw her in jail and ordering a mistrial, saying he thought she was so ineffective that jurors would hold it against her client. The defendant ended up going free because a different judge said a second trial would constitute double jeopardy.

Nance also "routinely directed his ire at jurors, litigants, attorneys, defendants, witnesses, law enforcement personnel, and other persons present in the courtroom," the commission said.

In a response to the commission, Nance denied that he violated the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct and asked for the charges to be dismissed. He declined to comment through his attorney, William C. Brennan, who also declined to comment.

A public hearing will be scheduled on the charges, and the commission will decide whether Nance has committed sanctionable conduct.

Levi said in a statement that she was thankful for the commission moving to take action.

"I want to commend the commission for their thorough investigation and continued commitment to maintaining the integrity of the judiciary," she said. "And on behalf of the defendants' whose cases were impacted, and those whose could be affected in the future, I am grateful that the commission sees the critical importance of fairness and justice for all."

Nance is known for a strict courtroom demeanor, often punctuated with a dry "Thank youuuu," and previously has been accused of inappropriate behavior, including receiving a rare public reprimand in 2001 after female prosecutors complained that he had an explosive temper and made comments about their appearance.

The commission found that he had demeaned women in court and in chambers, and had been "rude" and "hostile" to attorneys in a medical malpractice case.

The Sun also reported in 2000 that Nance was accused of improper comments during jury selection, saying that he forced women to announce their marital status and once told a prospective juror, who was single, to "stand up and let us see [you]. ... There may be a single guy out there."

In 2004, he was accused of massaging a young prosecutor's shoulder and criticizing the way a prospective juror wore a yarmulke. He faced a public hearing on those charges, which were eventually dismissed.

Not all investigations and reprimands of judges are made public. The Sun reported that Nance was forced at one point to take "corrective action" — the details of which were never released — after jailing an attorney for leaving his courtroom for six minutes.

In 2009, Nance ordered a spectator to jail for 10 days for crying out "Love you" to a handcuffed brother in the courtroom. Worried about her child at home, the woman began to cry. "Your baby will be there" when you get out, Nance said. "You want me to send him to social services? I'll send him [to jail] too."

During that hearing, he also ordered another woman out of the room for wearing a strapless top, saying the courtroom was not the beach.

Nance is a former public defender and private attorney who was appointed to the bench as an associate judge in 1997, and was re-elected to 15-year terms in 1998 and 2014. In both elections, attorney Page Croyder unsuccessfully ran with the intent of knocking off Nance, citing his temperament. He was supported by the other sitting judges, who ran on a slate together.

Judges are forced to retire when they turn 70, though many continue to hear cases.

Nance's latest troubles stem from court hearings involving Levi, who filed a formal complaint against Nance after the commission received information from "numerous sources."

The first case involved Montrelle Braxton, who was charged with murder. The commission wrote that Nance mocked and insulted Levi during the June 2015 trial, calling her "Lady" and banging on the bench. He said she was being disrespectful, acting like a "youngster," and engaging in what he called "sleight of hand."

Nance said that he believed Levi had been so ineffective that jurors would hold it against her client, and ordered a mistrial "sua sponte," or on his own without a request from the parties. Another judge assigned the case for a new trial ruled that Braxton couldn't be tried again.

Court records show Braxton would be arrested again three months later, for first-degree burglary; he pleaded guilty on Sept. 29, 2016, and received a sentence of 20 years, with all but 8 years suspended.

Jurors also faced inappropriate conduct from Nance during Braxton's trial, the commission alleged. When one juror, asked her level of education, said she had a master's degree, Nance responded, "I'm having trouble hearing your 'master's degree' voice." He asked jurors to wake up another juror so he wouldn't "have to throw a piece of ice at him."

The commission said Nance yelled at Levi when she appeared before him with two other clients the following September. In December, when Levi appeared with another client, Nance was rude and disrespectful to the client, using a "relentlessly mocking" tone, the commission said.

In his response, Nance told the commission that he was using his authority to manage the conduct of people in the courtroom, referring to Levi as "recalcitrant."

"It is the judge who controls the courtroom — not counsel, specifically recalcitrant counsel," Brennan wrote.

Regarding the jurors, he said he had a duty to make sure jurors were speaking clearly and not sleeping. Nance said some of the allegations were vague or not supported by specific examples.

"Judge Nance is entitled to a more definite statement," Brennan wrote.

jfenton@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
68°