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Complaints against Maryland judges doubled over last decade

The Commission on Judicial Disabilities decision Thursday to charge Baltimore District Court Judge Devy Patterson Russell with failing to carry out her duties is a rare disciplinary action by an oversight body established five decades ago to supervise the state’s nearly 300 judges.

Complaints to the commission have doubled over the past decade, from 117 in fiscal year 2007 to 234 in fiscal 2017. Of the 234 verified complaints in 2017, three led to charges. One resulted in a public reprimand, one with probation and the third with mandatory alcohol treatment, according to the commission’s annual reports.

Complaints filed with the commission — which come mostly from the public — are considered “confidential and not available to the public” unless the panel takes action.

For the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2017:

  • 168 complaints were filed by the public;
  • 32 by inmates;
  • 13 by the commission’s investigative counsel;
  • 11 by attorneys;
  • 10 by other judges.

Most complaints — 152 — were filed against Circuit Court judges, while 68 were lodged against District Court jurists. The remaining 14 were mostly against orphans court judges, though three were against judges in the appeals courts.

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

Of those resulting in warnings, judges were found to be:

  • “Demeaning;”
  • “Threatening;”
  • “Irritable;”
  • “Snide;”
  • “Rude.”

The Baltimore Sun recently evaluated programs across the nation that evaluate the performance of judges. Maryland does not have such a program, even though it has long been recommended by the American Bar Association and some of Maryland’s top legal experts.

Maryland judges serve what are believed to be the longest terms in the nation — 15 years for elected Circuit Court jurists, a decade for appointed District Court justices. But unlike 17 states and the District of Columbia, Maryland does not routinely evaluate the performances of judges with the type of program that watchdogs say is essential to maintaining public trust, informing voters and helping judges improve.

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