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Why does it take so long to discipline a judge in Maryland? Recent Glen Burnie homicide brings scrutiny.

The Court of Appeals building in Annapolis. The state's highest court has the final word on judicial discipline recommendations.
The Court of Appeals building in Annapolis. The state's highest court has the final word on judicial discipline recommendations. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

In late November 2018, the commission that disciplines Maryland judges recommended that Baltimore District Court Judge Devy Patterson Russell be suspended immediately for misconduct.

The Commission on Judicial Disabilities determined that Russell yelled at other judges, pushed a clerk and failed to properly process search warrant materials — behavior the panel concluded warranted a six-month suspension. But Russell didn’t stop working. The recommended discipline had to be considered by Maryland’s highest court, a process that would take months. In the meantime, Russell was reassigned to hear cases outside of Baltimore.

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So she was on the bench in Anne Arundel County in February, when 22-year-old Tyrique “TJ” Hudson of Glen Burnie sought a court order to keep away a neighbor he said had threatened him. Russell denied the petition, saying Hudson hadn’t met the burden of proof.

In April, Hudson was shot to death. Police have charged the neighbor with his murder.

Judge Russell has not been charged with any misconduct in that case. But Hudson’s death has nonetheless drawn attention to the slow-moving disciplinary system used for judges in Maryland.

Russell would not have been hearing cases in February if, when the discipline commission recommended suspension, she had been ordered off the bench right away or placed on administrative leave while awaiting the high court’s final ruling.

Maryland, like most states, doesn’t do that.

Across the country, it isn’t unusual for judges to hear cases while awaiting a final decision in disciplinary matters. To some critics, the lag between the Maryland commission’s recommendation of suspension and the court’s decision raises questions about judicial accountability here.

“When the Court of Appeals takes so long to act on what was egregious behavior, one questions whether judges are accountable,” said Laurie Duker, executive director of Court Watch Montgomery, which monitors domestic violence cases.

On June 28, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled on Russell’s discipline, imposing the six-month suspension without pay in a sharply worded decision criticizing her behavior. Russell’s conduct had “widespread effects” on “the administration of justice” in District Court, the court wrote.

In its unanimous ruling, the court said Russell’s “misconduct created, over a long period of time, a pervasive, unyielding and serious pattern of disrespectful and blatant disregard for the dignity of Maryland jurists.”

Russell, 53, argued in the legal proceedings that the charges dealt with personality disputes that aren’t subject to discipline. Her attorney, William C. Brennan Jr., did not respond to requests for comment.

An online petition, created after Hudson was killed, called for Russell’s removal and has garnered more than 26,000 signatures. The petition — which says she ‘“failed to protect the innocent” — doesn’t carry legal weight, but exemplifies the backlash the judge received in the wake of Hudson’s death.

It’s rare — and difficult — to remove a Maryland judge from the bench. Baltimore Chief Circuit Judge Alfred Nance retired in 2017 before the Court of Appeals ruled on a recommendation to remove him. Nance was found to have disparaged and humiliated people in the courthouse. The last judge expelled was Stanley Bennett of Frederick County District Court in 1984, for forging another judge’s signature.

And 2014 was the last time a Maryland judge was suspended.

The Maryland Constitution, which notes the importance of an independent judicial branch, gives the Court of Appeals the power to set the rules for judicial discipline.

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It should be difficult to remove judges, said Andrew Jay Graham, a Baltimore attorney who has represented judges in disciplinary cases. Otherwise, he said, members of the bench could face discipline for rulings that “are simply unpopular."

“The system has to be a well-balanced one," Graham said. "A judge is not supposed to be swayed by public opinion. A judge, like an umpire, is supposed to call balls and strikes like he or she sees it.”

After the state commission recommended Russell’s suspension, she was assigned to hear cases in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.

Hudson, a software engineer who moved to Maryland last summer for a job with Northrop Grumman after graduating early from North Carolina A&T State University, sought a peace order in February. He described encountering 53-year-old James Verombeck while taking out the trash at their apartment building. According to Hudson, Verombeck slid his thumb across his throat in a “death gesture” and told Hudson, “You knew this day was coming.”

Russell ruled Hudson had not met the burden of proof for a peace order. In court, she told him that harassment and stalking are part of a pattern of conduct, not a single incident.

In North Carolina, where Hudson grew up, some of his loved ones criticized the decision and were shocked to learn that the judge was working months after a disciplinary panel recommended her suspension.

“That’s unacceptable,” said Markeis Howard, a close family friend. “As a judge, you should be held to a higher standard because you have people’s lives in your hands.”

Howard and others close to Hudson say that while a peace order wouldn’t have guaranteed his safety, they wonder whether the case would have gone differently with another judge.

“The what-if’s don’t stop,” said Alisa Bassa, a cousin of Hudson’s father. “People are wondering why was she allowed to work.”

Maryland Judiciary spokeswoman Nadine Maeser declined to comment on the seven months it took for the Court of Appeals to rule on the suspension. She also declined to comment on the rationale of Chief Judge John P. Morrissey’s assignment of Russell to Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.

“The what-if’s don’t stop,” said Alisa Bassa, a cousin of Hudson’s father. “People are wondering why was she allowed to work.”


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In most other states, when a disciplinary commission finds that a judge committed misconduct and should be sanctioned publicly, the state’s highest court reviews the findings, said Cynthia Gray, director of the Center for Judicial Ethics at the National Center for State Courts.

In a few states, a judge can be suspended with pay pending the outcome of a recommendation for removal, she said. In most states, Gray said, judges continue to hear cases while a sanction is pending, as is the practice in Maryland.

Gray said the length of time the process takes in each state can vary based on the complexity of a case and whether a judge cooperates. There is no hard data about how long Maryland’s court has taken to make decisions compared to other states.

David B. Irwin, a Towson defense attorney who has represented judges before the state disciplinary panel, said he didn’t find it inappropriate for Russell to keep working because the commission’s recommendation for suspension was not the final word.

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“That’s a recommendation and certainly a powerful statement,” Irwin said. “But it wasn’t the final judgment. People should be given the benefit of the doubt until they get full due process.”

Duker of Courtwatch Montgomery said cases such as Russell’s where it takes months for a judge to be disciplined raise concerns.

“Investigations of judges should be deliberate, but they shouldn’t glacial,” Duker said.

Judges also have complained that investigations drag on.

“They’re very stressful personally,” said Graham, who has represented judges. “They’re expensive. And they can be very damaging” to a judge’s reputation.

District judges in Maryland are appointed by the governor and hear cases including landlord-tenant disputes, traffic violations, criminal misdemeanors and certain felonies. They conduct bail review and preliminary hearings in criminal cases.

Russell has been a judge since 2006 and is a former public defender and assistant attorney general.

Todd Oppenheim, a Baltimore public defender and former judicial candidate, described the controversy over the peace order as a “red herring.” He said it’s important for judges to have discretion in such cases so they can fairly apply the law without fear of public criticism.

But Oppenheim said the disciplinary system isn’t catching what he called disrespectful behavior of some judges.

“I think that the extreme aberrations get called out,” he said, but “the everyday mistreatment of attorneys who are regularly in court goes by completely unmentioned.”

The system also has drawn criticism from judges who say it is unfair to them.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Pamela J. White challenged a 2016 reprimand she received for her demeanor toward an attorney in a civil matter and for failing to recuse herself from a hearing in the case. She said the commission had violated her right to due process, including by not promptly notifying her of the investigation. The Court of Appeals upheld the reprimand last year, finding that White received due process protections even though the commission proceeding "was not perfect.”

And District Court Judge Mary C. Reese of Howard County recently asked the state to reimburse her for more than $86,000 in legal fees after the appeals court last year dismissed the commission’s findings that she had violated judicial conduct rules in her handling of a 2015 domestic violence case. The state Board of Public Works denied Reese’s request.

Judges’ complaints about fairness were part of the discussion as a Court of Appeals committee debated new rules governing the judicial discipline process.

Under the new rules, which took effect this month, the commission will no longer be able to issue public reprimands — all reprimands will be private. Harsher types of discipline, such as suspension, will remain public.

Judges will have the option to be notified when a complaint is filed against them, rather than toward the end of an investigation. The revisions also created new procedures for dealing with judges who are facing issues such as addiction that could be treated. And investigators will have to justify probes lasting longer than 90 days.

Russell now faces more disciplinary action in a separate case. The commission’s investigators allege she used her influence to try to embarrass Judge Catherine “Katie” Curran O’Malley, her colleague. A hearing on those allegations began in June and is scheduled to resume in August.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Alex Mann and Tim Prudente contributed to this article.

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