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Baltimore District judge steps down, citing cancer, amid fallout for contempt charge against public defender

Baltimore District Judge Joan B. Gordon retired last week after more than 15 years on the bench and while facing administrative charges that she locked up a public defender for contempt of court without just cause.

Her attorney wrote court officials to say that treatment for cancer forced the judge to step down.

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The attorney, Paul Kemp, went on to say the judge denied the charges and had been looking forward to defending herself. Gordon was accused of disparaging the public defender, improperly locking her up, and ignoring the requests of her client.

“Treatment and the results of surgery have left Respondent [Gordon] unable to prepare a response to the charges, or to continue to perform her judicial duties,” Kemp wrote the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities, the panel responsible for overseeing judges.

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Gordon’s resignation was effective Dec. 31. She did not return a message. Kemp declined to comment beyond his letter.

The public defender, Durriyyah Rose Hollimon, issued a brief statement.

“I am glad that Judge Gordon is no longer on the bench, so attorneys will no longer have to endure her harassment and belittling of them and I wish her well in her battle with cancer,” she wrote.

Her fellow public defenders packed the judge’s courtroom in the summer of 2019 in a show of support. In a statement Wednesday, Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe said Hollimon showed competence and grace.

“We respect her professionalism in light of the unfair and unreasonable assault on her competence and character,” DeWolfe said.

Gordon served as a district court judge since 2005. Before that, she worked as an assistant state’s attorney and assistant attorney general.

Last summer, investigators for the commission found probable cause to believe the judge deserved sanctions for “unprofessional” conduct toward the public defender. The commission was to hold a public hearing on the matter when Gordon resigned.

Her resignation comes three years after Baltimore Chief Circuit Judge Alfred Nance resigned over administrative charges that he made disparaging and demeaning comments to another public defender. In Nance’s case, the commission held a four-day hearing and recommended the state’s high court strip Nance of his post. He retired before that could happen.

At issue in Gordon’s case was a hearing in August 2019 for petty theft. Hollimon asked the judge to postpone trial so she could discuss a plea offer with her client. The judge denied her request.

“A lot of us are getting very tired of this business of saying, ‘I need time to talk about the state’s offer with my client,” the judge told her according to court documents.

Gordon ordered trial to begin over her protests. Further, her client spoke up, wanting to accept the plea deal and avoid trial.

Still, the judge insisted they were going to trial, according to court records. This brought more protests from Hollimon and her client before Gordon held the attorney in contempt of court. A supervisor from the public defender’s office came to take over the case.

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The investigators cited Gordon for exhibiting an “unprofessional demeanor,” for denying the public defender’s opportunity to be heard, showing a “bias or prejudice” against the public defender, starting contempt proceedings “without just cause,” and “disparaging the character” of the public defender.

State laws require judges maintain fairness and decorum and conduct themselves in a manner to promote confidence in the courts.

“While it has been the fervent intention of the respondent [Gordon] to refute the allegations within the charges, and present evidence in support of her position, she is medically incapable of doing so,” her attorney wrote the commission.

With her retirement, the commission dropped the charges.

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