Presiding over a courtroom for the first time in six weeks, Baltimore County District Judge Bruce S. Lamdin talked yesterday about second chances. He emphasized the importance of learning from mistakes.
And he warned some defendants that they'd face much worse consequences if they didn't maintain the life changes they vowed they had made.
"I think the person you listen to most as a result of this case is the man standing next to you," Lamdin told one young man in front of the judge with his attorney for sentencing on a marijuana charge. If he was "foolish enough" to disregard that lawyer's advice, the judge added, "it may come back to bite you in the shorts."
So went the judge's first day back on the bench after serving a 30-day suspension for making profane and uncivil comments in court. Issued in May by the judges of the state's highest court, the unpaid suspension was the harshest punishment handed down to a Maryland judge in more than two decades.
Lamdin moved efficiently through his first docket yesterday morning, accepting plea agreements, postponing a case for a Russian man who struggled to understand his constitutional rights and trading fines for probation so some defendants could avoid jail. Several defense attorneys told Lamdin that it was nice to see him again. And more than one lawyer noted during interviews outside the courtroom that the often-frank jurist seemed a bit more muted than he was before his suspension.
"He seemed a little more subdued, but I think that's natural," said Leonard H. Shapiro, a criminal defense attorney who has known Lamdin for 35 years and who argued a drunken-driving and gun possession case before him yesterday. "I don't think [the suspension] will affect him at all, other than he will try to get his point across in a different fashion."
Through a bailiff assigned to his courtroom, the 60-year-old judge declined a request for an interview.
The Maryland Court of Appeals suspended Lamdin on May 13 for 30 workdays, finding that he had violated the state's judicial code of conduct.
The investigation began when a Reisterstown man filed a formal complaint about the judge's handling of traffic cases on Sept. 2, 2005. The Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities ordered audio recordings of several weeks' worth of hearings from Lamdin's courtroom and charged him last year with 20 instances of sanctionable conduct.
They included disparaging remarks about drug treatment programs and the Baltimore City criminal justice system, a joke that the county's Circuit Court judges spend their afternoons sipping cocktails rather than working, and profanity not normally heard from the bench.
Lamdin admitted violating the canons of the judicial code of conduct, but he also explained that his courtroom commentary was often intended to ease tense moments with humor or to get through to the types of people he represented as a criminal defense attorney in language they could understand.
That same approach - although not with the same vocabulary - was on display yesterday.
"He's funny," said Joseph W. Puppe, a 45-year-old bricklayer who was in court for a traffic citation. "His retorts and replies to people, they're funny. And I thought he was pretty fair."
Lamdin asked Shapiro's client - a man who had a .22-caliber handgun tucked in his pocket and a blood-alcohol level that was more than twice the legal limit when police pulled him over - what he had learned from his mistakes. Then the judge offered some advice of his own.
"You can't mask the issues in your life with alcohol," he told the man, whose lawyer suggested that bartenders had poured stiffer drinks than usual for the man because they knew him. "It sounds like others were trying to lighten the load by getting you loaded, unfortunately."
To the young man charged with marijuana possession - whom Lamdin called "son" - the judge said, "I believe in giving people second chances. ... I don't want to send you to jail, but if you don't respect me, that's how I'll repay the favor. Make no mistake about that."
To a man who was contemplating pleading guilty to driving without a license, the judge said, "I don't punish people for telling the truth. What I don't tolerate is people who try to blow smoke up my robe."
Lamdin also handled the case of a Russian man who was prepared to plead guilty to a traffic offense. But as the judge began running through the rights that every defendant entering a guilty plea must waive, it became apparent that the man was struggling to understand the legal terminology in English.
Asked whether he understood that he had the right to be represented by an attorney and that the judge could send him to jail, the man said, "If I guilty, I go to jail."
"Comprende gulag ? You understand what gulag means?" the judge responded, referring to the former Soviet Union's penal system of forced labor camps. The man chuckled. Lamdin postponed the case so the man could talk to the public defender's office. The judge also ordered a Russian interpreter for the next hearing - although he said the man might need to pay for those services.
Rodney Hill, the prosecutor assigned to handle the docket in Lamdin's courtroom yesterday, said the judge has always been a forthright person.
"I think he's still that same person," he said. "He brings a certain realism to the bench. You're not going to come in here and BS the man. You can tell he's been around."
Richard K. Scott, who had a case before Lamdin yesterday, said the judge seemed more patient but still committed to helping defendants address the circumstances of their lives that landed them in court.
"He knows how to talk to people in a way that gets their attention and makes them listen," the defense attorney said. "I know a lot of people don't see it that way, but sometimes people need a whack in the head to come to their senses. He only does it because he cares."