Baltimore Circuit Judge Alfred Nance has been investigated before for judicial misconduct. But a state commission’s recommendation this week means he could face the harshest possible punishment of his career — the abrupt end of his two decades on the bench.
The state Commission on Judicial Disabilities voted unanimously to recommend that Maryland’s highest court strip Nance from his elected post just six months before the veteran judge reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.
Nance made such disparaging and demeaning comments during trials two years ago, the commission wrote, that he undermined the integrity of the court.
“A public reprimand or suspension is not commensurate with the serious violation of misconduct in office committed by Judge Nance,” the commission wrote, calling for “the strongest possible sanction.”
Such a punishment would be the first time a sitting Maryland judge was expelled since Stanley Bennett was kicked off the bench in 1984, said a spokesman for the state judiciary. A Frederick District Court judge, Bennett was stripped of office for forging the signature of another judge to clean up the driving record of a political donor’s grandson.
“It’s very rare that a judge is removed from the bench or recommended for removal. … That itself is pretty extraordinary,” said Andrew Jay Graham, a veteran attorney and former chair of the Maryland State Bar Association ethics committee.
The final decision whether to expel Nance falls to the Maryland Court of Appeals. Only the state’s highest court has authority to remove a sitting judge. Nance remains on the bench in Baltimore until such a decision.
His attorney, William Brennan Jr., has one month to send the court his response. The court will then schedule a hearing.
“I’m going to save my comments for an appropriate pleading in the court,” Brennan said Thursday.
As chief judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court, Nance built a reputation as a stern and demanding presence in the courtroom, one with little patience for those who waste time or arrive to court late, or are unprepared or casually dressed. His critics, however, have accused Nance of going too far and bullying both defendants and attorneys.
During a four-day hearing last month in Annapolis, Brennan said the judge was simply “old-school.” He warned that disciplining Nance would deter other judges from speaking out as they see fit to maintain order.
The case centered on Nance’s courtroom encounters with Assistant Public Defender Deborah Levi, whom prosecutors said Nance dismissively referred to as “lady,” “mother hen” and “child.” They said Nance once told Levi to “shut up” and threatened to throw her in jail. She filed a complaint against Nance with the commission.
Levi declined to comment Thursday.
The commission found that Nance made comments in two 2015 cases that were “undignified, condescending, and unprofessional.” The members said his “facial expressions, tone of voice and body language” were “gratuitous, insensitive, inflammatory and relentless.”
Charges stemming from two other cases were dismissed for lack of proof, the commission wrote.
State laws require judges maintain fairness and decorum and conduct themselves in a manner that promotes confidence in the courts.
Prosecutors played hours of courtroom video from Nance’s cases during last month’s hearing. They described a pattern of behavior by the judge that they said belittled those in his courtroom.
The commission found that Nance told one defendant: “If you want to play with yourself, wait until you get back to your cell.” The commission found Nance also told the man, “If your tinkle come up dirty, you will be violated.”
During the hearings, retired Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Joseph Murphy Jr. told the commission that judges have broad authority to maintain order. He said Nance’s remarks fell within the bounds of that authority.
Attorneys Jane McGough, Margaret Mead and Michael Lawlor spoke in support of Nance during last month’s hearings, saying the judge was strict but respectful. Lawlor told of the time Nance once gave him collar stays for his wrinkled shirt.
Nance was issued a public reprimand in 2001 by the judicial disabilities commission for behaving in an "undignified" and "demeaning" manner toward women.
At that time, four female prosecutors formally accused the judge of having an "explosive temper" and making comments about their appearance. In another instance, Nance ordered a prospective juror who was single to stand up so that everyone in court could look at her. "There may be a single guy out there," he said.
In 2004, the commission dismissed charges of misconduct brought against him.
In a case that was not brought before the commission, Scott Reid, a public defender in Baltimore, said Nance humiliated his client last summer. The defendant was charged with attempted murder and Nance refused to let the man use the bathroom as hours passed by during jury selection.
“He said, ‘Mr. Reid, I really, really have to go. I’m really having a hard time holding it,’ ” Reid said of his client. “I repeated the desire to the judge and he’s like, ‘Look, there’s nothing I can do. He’s going to have to wait.’ ”
Meanwhile, Reid said, the jurors were allowed to step out to use the bathroom.
“The man literally just released, in his clothes, at the bench,” Reid said. “There was a large puddle. He was standing in it. … It was absolutely humiliating.”
Reid finds no fault with Nance’s rulings from the bench.
“Judge Nance has a reputation for being very fair to our clients … somebody who has a sense of justice,” Reid said. “The problem that I and some of my clients have is how he treats the human beings inside the courtroom.”
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.