When Maryland’s judicial discipline panel recommended an immediate suspension last year for a controversial Baltimore judge, she didn’t stop working right away. Instead, District Judge Devy Patterson Russell continued to hear cases for seven months while she waited for a decision on her fate from the state’s highest court.
Now, the top court is expected to consider a change that would allow it to quickly get such judges off the bench and on administrative leave pending its final decision on their discipline.
The proposed change would let the Court of Appeals place a judge on interim administrative leave with pay as soon as the Commission on Judicial Disabilities finds that the judge has committed “sanctionable conduct” warranting suspension or removal from office, or concludes that a judge can’t properly perform his or her duties. The high court would still hold a hearing before making a final decision on a judge’s status.
Currently, it can take months for the high court to act upon disciplinary recommendations, as it must schedule the hearing, listen to arguments and issue an opinion.
A committee that reviews procedural court rules recently recommended the change, which will be forwarded to the Court of Appeals for consideration. The recommendation was prompted by the Russell case.
“There had been concerns expressed ... about [Russell] continuing to sit while the case was pending in the Court of Appeals,” said retired Court of Appeals Judge Alan M. Wilner, who chairs the rules committee.
The change would be in accordance with guidelines from the American Bar Association, which say that in cases of serious misconduct, courts should have the option to remove a judge from the bench immediately, "pending a final determination of the ultimate discipline to be imposed.”
In late 2018, Maryland’s disciplinary commission recommended a six-month suspension after concluding Russell yelled at colleagues, pushed a clerk and didn’t properly handle search warrant materials. On July 1, the Court of Appeals imposed the suspension, without pay.
While she awaited the court’s decision, Russell was assigned to hear cases in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.
In Anne Arundel, she declined to issue a peace order sought by a 22-year-old man, Tyrique “TJ” Hudson, against his neighbor, James Verombeck, 53.
Hudson was later shot to death at his Glen Burnie apartment complex and Verombeck was charged with murder. The case prompted outrage from some who questioned why Russell was still on the bench after the commission recommended a suspension. Almost 30,000 people signed an online petition calling for the judge’s removal.
Russell couldn’t be reached for comment. Her attorney in the disciplinary proceedings, William C. Brennan Jr., did not respond to requests for comment.
Del. Shaneka Henson, a Democrat who represents Anne Arundel, said she proposed the change to the rules committee in response to concerns from the community.
“I think the Judge Russell case really highlighted to people a few things that were not so obvious before,” Henson said.
The proposed amendment would let judges ask for reconsideration of an interim administrative leave.
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Henson, an attorney, said due process is important in the judicial discipline system, but “the public should not be subject to the decisions of judges that are potentially not at their best and full capacity.”
Henson attended a recent meeting of the judicial rules committee — along with Carl Snowden of the Caucus of African American Leaders and Bishop Larry Lee Thomas of United Black Clergy of Anne Arundel County — to speak in favor of the change.
Snowden, a former director of civil rights for the Maryland attorney general’s office, said he believes judges are treated differently than other professions.
“We invest so much authority [in judges], literally life and death and the ability to incarcerate or free people,” Snowden said.
Hudson’s father, Tyrone, declined to comment on the issue because the case against Verombeck is pending. A trial is scheduled for next year.
The amendment is among several changes recommended to the judicial discipline process. Wilner said they will be subject to a public comment period and hearing, but a date hasn’t been set.
Kevin B. Collins, an attorney representing the Maryland Circuit Judges Association, said the group does not object to the proposed changes.