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The Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities has proposed temporarily suspending judges they find to have engaged in misconduct until a final disciplinary decision is made by the Court of Appeals.
The Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities has proposed temporarily suspending judges they find to have engaged in misconduct until a final disciplinary decision is made by the Court of Appeals. (File)

The Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities investigates complaints against judges, but even if the independent body decides an offense warrants suspension or removal from office, it won’t happen right away. Maryland’s highest court must weigh in after a review of the case, which will include a hearing in which accused judges can further defend themselves. It could take months.

The lengthy process is designed to protect judges’ rights to due process, but what about the rights of those who appear in their courtrooms? If a judge has been found to have committed sanctionable conduct, should he or she really continue to preside over cases?

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The Court of Appeals Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure has come up with a proposal to keep judges off the bench that will safeguard both the integrity of the judicial process and judges’ rights to a fair disciplinary process. It would allow the Court of Appeals to place a judge on administrative leave with pay once the Commission on Judicial Disabilities finds that the judge’s actions warrant suspension or removal from office, or members determine that a judge can’t properly perform the bench duties. The judge can ask for a reconsideration before removal, and the appeals court would still conduct its review before making a final call.

The Maryland Court of Appeals should approve the proposal, which is based on American Bar Association guidelines that recommend temporarily suspending a judge found to have committed a “serious crime,” defined as any felony or lesser crime that reflects adversely on the judge’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness to do the job.

“Certain misconduct... [is] likely to cause serious harm to the administration of justice," the ABA states.

While the vast majority of judges conduct themselves with the utmost integrity, those who don’t must be removed immediately. They hold the power to take away an individual’s freedom, and if an initial investigation has found them unable to properly adjudicate, we should err on the side of protecting the public and place them on paid leave until the conclusion of the process.

Judge Devy Patterson Russell, right, with her lawyer William Brennan, arrives at the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal Building in Annapolis before appearing at a hearing possible ethics violation during her time on the Baltimore bench. While on the bench in Anne Arundel County she denied a peace order to Tyrique Hudson of Glen Burnie who was subsequently murdered, allegedly by the subject of the order.
Judge Devy Patterson Russell, right, with her lawyer William Brennan, arrives at the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal Building in Annapolis before appearing at a hearing possible ethics violation during her time on the Baltimore bench. While on the bench in Anne Arundel County she denied a peace order to Tyrique Hudson of Glen Burnie who was subsequently murdered, allegedly by the subject of the order. (Joshua McKerrow/Capital Gazette)

The case of District Judge Devy Patterson Russell was the catalyst for the suggestion of suspensions with pay. The discipline commission had recommended that Ms. Russell be suspended for yelling at other judges and staffers, pushing a courthouse employee and failing to properly handle search warrant paperwork between 2007 and 2015. She heard cases for seven months before the Court of Appeals approved the recommended suspension.

During that time, Ms. Russell declined to issue a peace order sought by Tyrite “TJ" Hudson, against his neighbor James Verombeck. The neighbor was later charged with murder in the shooting death of Mr. Hudson, 23, at his apartment in Glen Burnie. Several activists said the young man might still be alive had Ms. Russell not been on the bench to deny the order.

We don’t think the correlation is so black and white. Other judges may have made the same decision Ms. Russell did based on the facts available at the time, and there is no way of knowing if a peace order would have spared Mr. Hudson. But that doesn’t mean that other conflicts could not arise in other cases. A judge found to have shown bias against rape victims, for example, should not preside over sexual assault cases.

At the same time, we recognize the presumption of innocence and think it’s only fair that judges not lose their livelihoods while awaiting a conclusion to the disciplinary process. The Court of Appeals could, after all, disagree with the judicial committee’s decision.

The state could also stand to speed up the disciplinary process of judges. These cases should be considered priorities for the sake of the judicial system — and justice.

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to accurately reflect the source of the proposal: The Court of Appeals Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure. An earlier version incorrectly attributed it to another group.

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