The Maryland Board of Public Works on Wednesday denied a district judge’s request to have the state pay for $86,433 in legal fees she racked up fighting a dismissed complaint filed against her four years ago over how she handled a domestic violence case.
The decision highlighted problems critics have had with the state’s process for holding judges accountable through the Commission on Judicial Disabilities — including commission members who raised specific failings related to the case against Judge Mary C. Reese of Howard County. The process took four years from start to finish as the commission sought to impose five days of training on Reese for dismissing a peace order after hearing from a teenage domestic violence victim for 19 seconds.
Reese asked the state to cover her legal expenses because the Court of Appeals last year dismissed the commission’s 2017 findings that she violated the Code of Judicial Conduct by failing to “demonstrate the thoroughness, competence and diligence necessary to complete her judicial responsibilities.”
Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot said the state should not have to pay for Reese’s legal expenses because the commission’s process operated properly even though the Court of Appeals dismissed the findings. The court, however, rejected Reese’s request to have her legal fees paid because that would have required a finding that the complaints were filed in “bad faith.”
“The standard is extremely high,” said Phil Andrews, an attorney who appeared on behalf of Reese at the board meeting.
“We should have the same standard,” Hogan said.
Andrews argued that denying reimbursement was “beyond unfair.”
If Reese had been sued as a state employee rather than having faced an administrative process, she would have been represented by Office of the Attorney General. In addition, Andrews emphasized that Reese had been exonerated by the Court of Appeals.
“The Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities’ conclusion that Judge Reese committed sanctionable conduct was legally incorrect,” the court stated in an opinion published in February. “Here, there was no factual basis to support the conclusion that Judge Reese committed misconduct while in office.”
Andrews said the board has approved a similar request to pay legal fees nearly two decades ago.
But Franchot highlighted the facts of one of the complaints brought against Reese in 2015 by the Women’s Law Center of Maryland.
In the case, the commission’s investigation found that Reese made “unprofessional comments and behavior” when providing a less-than-four-minute hearing to a minor without a lawyer. Reese denied the 17-year-old woman’s request for a temporary peace order against her ex-boyfriend who had given her black eyes that were visible in the courtroom, according to commission records.
The teenager said her ex-boyfriend had not abused her before and that the only action she had taken to prevent future abuse was to block his number from her phone.
In response, Reese said: “It looks to me like she’s taking care of it,” according to commission records.
Officials with the Women’s Law Center of Maryland declined to comment. The commission agreed that the 19-second interaction with the teenager in such a brief hearing was a violation of conduct rules.
Andrews said district court hearings are often quick, especially when parties are not represented by attorneys and one side isn’t present. Reese had no choice but to deny the protective order request because evidence of prior abuse is required and that she can not appear to be partial because the ex-boyfriend was not present.
But Franchot was unconvinced given the condition of the young woman.
“She was standing before the court with a black eye,” he said.
Hogan said the state should not have to pay for a process that took four years from the 2015 complaints to the final opinion, published this year.
“You want us to pay for both sides, her prosecution and her defense,” Hogan said. The commission “is not just some perfunctory group. The Commission on Judicial Disabilities is charged with overseeing the conduct of judges. They found that she committed sanctionable conduct and ruled against her.”
Andrews said the board approval for reimbursement would reassure “public servants who are just doing their jobs.”
Hogan and Franchot voted against paying the legal fees.
Treasurer Nancy Kopp disagreed.
“She should not be out of pocket” for the expenses “when her position was upheld by the Court of Appeals,” Kopp said. “It doesn’t seem right to me.”
The whole process does not seem right to several critics.
After a majority of the 11-member commission voted against Reese — four members dissented — they could not settle on a punishment. The commission has the authority to issue a public reprimand. But other, more severe punishments require approval by the Court of Appeals.
“The imposition of a public reprimand is insufficient to address the misconduct by Judge Reese or restore the public’s trust that the judge will not repeat these behaviors in the future,” the commission wrote in its opinion.
So the panel recommended that the Court of Appeals require Reese to work with a mentor judge and attend five days of training about domestic violence.
Instead, the court dismissed the case altogether.
Laurie Duker, executive director of Court Watch Montgomery, has been pushing for more judicial accountability in Maryland — especially with how judges handle domestic violence cases.
“A four-year process isn’t real accountability,” Duker said. “These are some of the least accountable judges in the country because we have no programs to evaluate judges.”
She expressed frustration that other judges in the state system were able to overrule the commission’s findings.
“The commission’s recommendations should stand and not be reviewed by people in the same system,” she said. “There should more transparency with the Commission on Judicial Disabilities.”
Even some dissenting commission members found fault with the process because it prohibited them from ordering retraining as a separate track from reprimand or referral to the court.