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'Nance is old school': Hearing opens on impropriety charges against chief judge of Baltimore Circuit Court

A hearing has been scheduled starting on Thursday for Baltimore Circuit Court Chief Judge Alfred Nance. He has been charged with behaving in an unprofessional manner in court.

Prosecutors arrived at a simple strategy to try and prove that the chief judge of Baltimore's Circuit Court acted so discourteously and unprofessionally as to undermine the integrity of the court. They positioned a projection screen, dimmed the lights, and began to play 24 hours of videos recorded during criminal trials before Judge Alfred Nance.

The film session started the hearing Thursday in Annapolis into charges that Nance, 69, broke state laws that govern a judge's behavior on the bench. Six days are scheduled for the hearing before the state's judicial oversight panel. Prosecutors intend to play recordings of several cases Nance presided over, showing videos that include preliminary motions and jury selection.

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At issue is whether Nance, a 20-year veteran of the bench, acted as a fair but no-nonsense judge, or mocked defendants and berated attorneys, compromising the judicial process. Members of the Commission on Judicial Disabilities will decide whether to dismiss the charges or recommend discipline, which could range from a reprimand to his removal from the bench. The state Court of Appeals would decide on any recommendation for discipline.

His attorney, William Brennan Jr., told the commission Nance may be demanding, but the courtroom isn't a high school popularity contest.

"Judge Nance is old-school. Judge Nance is formal. Judge Nance is stern," Brennan told the commission. "Not the popular teacher, not the cool teacher, but the teacher that expects lawyers to be at their best."

Nance's comments from the bench have raised eyebrows for years; he's been investigated for discipline at least two other times. The latest case supplied enough evidence for the commission investigators to bring charges against Nance.

Investigative attorney Tanya Bernstein described a pattern of behavior by Nance that she said belittled those in his courtroom. He referred to one public defender as a "mother hen" and "child," and told her to "shut up," Bernstein said. Nance would mock and imitate defendants and attorneys, she said, rolling his eyes, sighing, pointing his finger, and banging on the bench.

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

"I urge you to watch the recordings closely and carefully," Bernstein told the commission.

Investigators quoted Nance in the written charges.

"You wanna play with yourself in front of me and I'll give you three years for contempt," Nance allegedly told a defendant in 2015. "You wanna play with yourself, wait until you get back to your cell."

"If your tinkle come up dirty," he allegedly warned the same man, "you will be violated."

They also cited Nance's courtroom interactions with Deborah Levi, an assistant public defender in Baltimore, in four cases from 2015. She filed a complaint with the commission against Nance.

One judge, three lawyers and three citizens on the commission heard arguments Thursday. Levi did not attend.

"The record speaks for itself," Levi said by phone. "It wasn't about me. It was about whether this conduct interfered with the administration of justice and the rights afforded criminal defendants."

Investigators say Nance mocked and scolded Levi, threatening to throw her in jail. He ultimately ordered a mistrial in one case, saying he thought she was so ineffective that jurors would hold it against her client, according to the charges. Her defendant ended up going free because another judge decided a second trial would constitute double jeopardy.

Nance also accused Levi at one point of having a "temper tantrum, and therefore, as youngsters should be, [she should be] ignored whenever possible," investigators wrote.

Nance's attorney, however, urged the panel to consider Levi's actions, too. Brennan told the panel she made frivolous motions, delayed proceedings and answered the judge with the informal quip of "I suppose so."

"Is that what a lawyer says to a judge?" he asked the panel. "Look at the conduct of the lawyers … you will realize the investigative counsel has grossly overcharged this case."

Nance served as a public defender and private attorney before joining the bench in 1998. He received a public reprimand in 2001 after female prosecutors complained that he had an explosive temper and commented on their appearance.

Byron Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor, said complaints about judges' conduct are usually dropped or resolved outside the courtroom. Nance is less than one year from his 70th birthday, the age at which judges are required to retire. Still, Nance has fought the charges.

On Thursday, he took notes, whispered to his attorney and chewed on the end of his eyeglasses, showing no reaction as the courtroom videos played on.

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