Panel offers new rules for bench impropriety


The Maryland Court of Appeals fine-tuned proposed changes in the rules for disciplining judges yesterday but stopped short of voting to adopt them.

New rules for the Commission on Judicial Disabilities were presented by Chief Judge Alan M. Wilner of the Court of Special Appeals, chairman of the judiciary's Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure. The proposed changes include:

* Giving the commission its own investigator to pursue all nonfrivolous complaints.

* Setting time limits for investigations.

* Making proceedings public when a misconduct charge is pursued. Under the old rules, complaints became public only when they were referred to the Court of Appeals, which rarely happened.

* A new type of sanction for erring judges, "a deferred discipline agreement," which might include having the judge write an apology or take sensitivity training. This and other less serious disciplinary actions would remain secret under the new rules.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe, the new head of the disabilities commission, also attended to support the proposal and answer questions. One judge compared the new discipline agreement to "a reprimand with groveling." But Judge Wilner said, "It's making you a better judge."

Although several judges were concerned about keeping records of frivolous complaints that might haunt a judge's career, Judge Howe argued that every complaint -- even those that make no sense -- should be recorded. "One of the biggest criticisms of the commission," she said, "is in the area of statistical -- or lack of statistical -- recordation."

While the judges debated, the General Assembly was close to enacting a constitutional amendment that would beef up the discipline panel, which has been criticized for secrecy and unwillingness to act in the face of judicial misconduct. Final approval in the Senate is expected before Monday's adjournment.

The amendment, which would go before the voters in 1996, would also put a majority of laymen and practicing attorneys on a panel now dominated by judges.

Meanwhile, the Court of Appeals judges wrestled with one of the major objections to the new rules raised by critics among the state's trial judges: defining "misconduct." The judges settled upon adding the word "sanctionable" before misconduct, and making it clear that an incorrect ruling or decision is not misconduct.

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