Baltimore district judge charged with neglecting years of paperwork and discourteous conduct

The state panel that polices the judiciary has accused a Baltimore District Court judge of neglecting years of paperwork, ordering her clerk to destroy old records and behaving with contempt toward her colleagues on the bench.

The conduct of District Judge Devy Russell, investigators for the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities say, breaks state laws that require judges be diligent and courteous and promote confidence in the courts.

“Judge Russell has shown a consistent failure to perform the duties of her office,” investigators Tanya Bernstein and Derek Bayne wrote in the commission’s complaint.

Russell, 51, a district judge since 2006, could not be reached for comment Thursday. Her attorney, Steven Silverman, declined to comment.

In a written response to the charges, Silverman argued that state law does not impose deadlines for the paperwork in question, and the investigators failed to provide specific instances in which Russell was unprofessional. He disputed claims that her records were trashed.

“Judge Russell requests a hearing,” he wrote, “and an opportunity to demonstrate that she remains in possession of each piece of paper that she is falsely accused of having ‘instructed’ a law clerk to ‘destroy.’”

The commission has the authority to sanction judges up to and including removal from the bench. A hearing for Russell has not been scheduled.

It’s the second time in the last four months that the commission has scrutinized the professionalism of a Baltimore judge.

The chief judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court retired in December before Maryland’s highest court could decide whether to expel him from the bench. Circuit Judge Alfred Nance, 69, was found to have a pattern of disparaging and demeaning behavior.

The investigators who charged Nance now accuse Russell of failing to keep up with her paperwork — specifically, forms returned after a police search — between 2007 and 2015.

Judges routinely sign search warrants. Police conduct the search and return to the judge with an inventory of what was found. The judge is supposed to sign and date these papers, then send them off for processing and storage.

Russell failed to keep up with this administrative process, the investigators say, neglecting to send off at least 135 executed search warrants and inventories for processing and storage.

They don’t suggest that the alleged lapses hindered any searches or cases.

The investigators say Russell stored the papers in her chambers until 2016, when she handed boxes of them to a law clerk and asked they be matched up and sent off.

“The law clerk was instructed by Judge Russell to keep her assignment a secret,” they wrote.

But the clerk had trouble matching all the papers, they wrote, and Russell allegedly told the clerk to “destroy” those that were left over.

Her attorney disputed that accusation.

“Judge Russell stated that ‘we might as well get rid of’ the documents that the law clerk could not match up,” Silverman wrote. “Those words simply do not constitute an instruction to ‘destroy’ anything. … If Judge Russell wanted her warrants destroyed, she would have destroyed them herself.”

Further, he wrote, the judge still has the papers and is willing to provide them.

According to Silverman, the judge was storing the papers because some were incomplete, other judges had the same habits, and she has since changed her practice to process warrants faster.

He said the investigators failed to provide Russell with the source of the charges against her, depriving her of “a meaningful opportunity to present the Inquiry Board with relevant information about the source’s motivation.”

The investigators accused Russell of hindering their work by refusing to accept certified mail they sent and by misrepresenting facts.

They also accused her of showing contempt for her supervisors.

Silverman challenged the investigators to provide dates, times and locations of the allegedly unprofessional conduct.

District court judges earn an annual salary of $141,333, according to the latest report from the Judicial Compensation Commission.

The Commission on Judicial Disabilities investigates allegations of misconduct by judges across Maryland. Complaints to the commission have doubled in the past decade, from 117 to 234.

Of the 234 complaints last fiscal year, three led to charges. One resulted in a public reprimand, one with probation, and the third with mandatory alcohol treatment.

Most complaints are dismissed because the commission finds them unsubstantiated or finds that the allegations do not amount to “sanctionable conduct.”

Of those resulting in warnings, judges were found to be “demeaning,” “threatening,” “condescending,” “irritable,” “short-fused,” “snide,” “rude,” and “racist,” or to have lacked impartiality.

The case against Nance, the longtime chief judge of Baltimore Circuit Court, was one rare instance in which the commission voted to remove a judge from the bench.

Prosecutors played hours of courtroom video, arguing that the judge showed a pattern of belittling those in his courtroom.

The case centered on Nance’s 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.

Baltimore Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

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