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New discipline rules will keep reprimands of Maryland judges private

New discipline rules will keep reprimands of Maryland judges private
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)

More disciplinary actions for Maryland judges could remain confidential under new rules that took effect this month.

Among the changes: All reprimands by the Commission on Judicial Disabilities, the state’s judicial discipline panel, will be private. The commission previously could issue public reprimands.

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Retired Court of Appeals Judge Alan M. Wilner said there are instances where a judge has a lapse in demeanor, but the behavior doesn’t warrant more severe discipline.

“It could be just a bad day" or the stress of a trial, said Wilner, who chairs the committee that proposed the rule changes to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

The rules define reprimands as “an informal private sanction” for conduct that doesn’t merit a censure, suspension or removal, which are more severe types of discipline that remain public.

The new rules also include options for situations where a judge is dealing with substance abuse or other conditions that could be treated with professional intervention.

“It’s more recognition of those kinds of things that really shouldn’t be treated as punishment,” Wilner said.

Some of the changes stemmed from judges’ concerns about due process in the disciplinary system and other issues of fairness, said attorney Kevin B. Collins, who represented the Maryland Circuit Judges Association.

Two disciplinary cases played into the debate over the rules — those of Baltimore Circuit Judge Pamela J. White and District Court Judge Mary C. Reese of Howard County. Both judges challenged their discipline.

White challenged a reprimand she received for her demeanor toward an attorney in a civil matter and for failing to recuse herself from a hearing. She said her due process rights were violated. The Court of Appeals upheld the discipline, though it said the disciplinary proceeding “was not perfect.”

In Reese’s case, the court dismissed the commission’s findings that she had violated judicial conduct rules in her handling of a domestic violence case, but she was on the hook for more than $86,000 in legal fees.

The new rules mean “there are more options for discipline that may never make it to the [media],” said Irwin R. Kramer, an attorney based in Reisterstown.

“The rationale for that is that ... not every infraction is a capital offense,” he said.

Laurie Duker, executive director of Court Watch Montgomery, said there should be more focus on transparency.

"We welcome reforms at the commission to protect judges’ right to due process, but we would like to see equal energy placed on the question of how to make the system more accountable and transparent,” said Duker, whose organization monitors domestic violence cases.

Another change is that investigators will have to justify extensions when a review takes longer than 90 days.

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The new rules also give judges the option to be notified when a complaint is filed, rather than toward the end of the investigation.

Some judges want to know about a complaint early, while others don’t because most complaints are dismissed and “it just creates angst” to know about them, Wilner said.

Last year, the commission received 211 complaints and filed charges in seven cases.

“The vast majority of complaints ... were dismissed because the allegations set forth in the complaints were either found to be unsubstantiated, or the conduct complained about did not constitute sanctionable conduct,” the commission’s annual report states.

That is the norm for state disciplinary panels and in the federal system, said Russell Wheeler, a fellow with the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Any disciplinary system must balance judges’ “legitimate right to some privacy” with the acknowledgement that they are public servants, Wheeler said.

“A lot of these complaints are just backdoor efforts to get a decision reversed,” Wheeler said.

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