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'Uncontrollable incivility': Baltimore judge suspended without pay by Maryland Court of Appeals

'Uncontrollable incivility': Baltimore judge suspended without pay by Maryland Court of Appeals
The Maryland Court of Appeals has imposed a six-month suspension without pay on a Baltimore judge who repeatedly clashed with her colleagues. (Paul W. Gillespie / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The Maryland Court of Appeals has imposed a six-month suspension without pay on a Baltimore judge who repeatedly clashed with her colleagues, finding that her conduct “exhibited a pattern of discourtesy and uncontrollable incivility that had pervasive effects on the administration of justice” in the district court.

The state’s highest court also said that for District Court Judge Devy Patterson Russell to be reinstated, she must undergo a health evaluation for “a complete emotional and behavioral assessment,” follow any recommended treatment and complete a course on judicial ethics.

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The suspension took effect Monday. It came months after a state disciplinary panel initially recommended the sanction.

In November, the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities said Russell should be suspended after finding she had engaged in misconduct. The commission said she yelled at other judges and staffers, pushed a courthouse employee and failed to properly handle search warrant paperwork between 2007 and 2015. It was up to the appeals court to decide whether to impose the suspension.

Russell “exhibited a pattern of divisive, combative, and volatile interpersonal issues,” the Court of Appeals held in an opinion filed Friday and written by Judge Clayton Greene Jr. “Her conduct is unbecoming of a member of the judiciary, and it fails to maintain the demeanor that our rules require of judges.”

The opinion was filed days after disciplinary proceedings began in a separate case involving Russell. In that case, investigators allege she used her influence as a judge to try to embarrass a colleague. She also recently faced criticism from the public after it came to light that she declined to issue a peace order sought by a young man who was later shot to death.

Neither Russell nor her attorney, William C. Brennan Jr., could be reached for comment Monday.

Russell, 53, was assigned to Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties while she awaited the court ruling.

District court judges in Maryland earn $146,333 a year.

The appeals court heard arguments in her case in March. Russell cited a host of legal theories in saying that the charges against her should be dismissed. She also argued that the proper procedures weren’t followed in the disciplinary process. But the court wasn’t convinced by those arguments.

The court also rejected Russell’s assertion that the issues at hand amounted to personality disputes. While any single instance of Russell’s conflicts with colleagues would likely not amount to sanctionable conduct, “the unyielding pattern of respondent’s conduct has fostered a toxic environment in the district court, and it leads this court to conclude that her conduct is sanctionable,” Greene wrote.

And while the behavior in question didn’t happen “while she was presiding over cases on the bench … every instance of her irate misbehavior occurred at the courthouse and many outbursts occurred in the presence of the public,” he wrote.

The state commission had cited numerous incidents involving Russell, including attempts to undermine the authority of District Administrative Judge Barbara B. Waxman and Chief Judge John P. Morrissey. Colleagues described “walking on eggshells” around her.

A district court judge since 2006, Russell is accused in a separate disciplinary case of trying to spread a rumor about Judge Catherine “Katie” Curran O’Malley. Proceedings in that matter began last week and are scheduled to continue in August.

This spring, Russell came under scrutiny from the public after it came to light that in February, she denied a peace order sought by Tyrique Hudson, 22, against Hudson’s neighbor, James Allan Verombeck, saying the petition didn’t meet the burden of proof. In April, Hudson was found fatally shot in the stairwell of his Glen Burnie apartment building. Verombeck, 53, is charged with his murder.

Russell previously served as an assistant public defender from 1992 to 1995 and then as an assistant attorney general in the criminal appeals division until 2006. She is married to Judge George L. Russell III of the U.S. District Court in Maryland.

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The suspension of a judge is rare, but Russell isn’t the only member of the judiciary to face sanctions for unprofessional conduct in recent years.

In December 2017, the chief judge of Baltimore Circuit Court retired before Maryland’s highest court could decide whether to remove him from the bench. Alfred Nance was found to have made disparaging remarks and humiliated people in his courtroom, even calling one public defender a “mother hen” and threatening to throw her in jail.

According to the state judiciary, the last judge expelled from the bench was Frederick District Judge Stanley Bennett, who was stripped of office in 1984 for forging another judge’s signature to clean up the driving record of a political donor’s grandson.

Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this article.

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