A divided judicial discipline panel determined a Howard County judge committed sanctionable conduct in a 2015 relationship violence case and recommended she attend specialized training and be assigned a mentor judge.
Six members — a majority of the Commission on Judicial Disabilities — voted to discipline Howard County District Judge Mary C. Reese, but four members dissented, finding “Judge Reese’s conduct was well within the boundaries of her independent judicial discretion and consistent with the testimony of each of the persuasive character witnesses who appeared on Judge Reese’s behalf.”
The case will be referred to the Court of Appeals for final action and Andrew Jay Graham, who represented Reese, said he and his client will argue the dissenters were correct.
“I think the dissent was very well-reasoned, and I certainly look forward to having the Court of Appeals review the entire case,” said Graham, of Kramon & Graham PA in Baltimore.
Complaints were filed against Reese by individuals and the Women’s Law Center of Maryland for two hearings in 2014 and 2015. The commission charged Reese with violations of the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct in April and a hearing was held last month.
In an opinion dated Monday, the commission found sanctionable conduct occurred in one case when woman was seeking a peace order on behalf of her 17-year-old granddaughter against her ex-boyfriend, whom she alleged had assaulted her and given her a black eye.
The grandmother described the situation, and Reese asked the alleged victim if she had anything to add and if this had ever happened before. When the victim said she had not spoken with the respondent and had blocked him from her phone, Reese dismissed the case and said, “It looks to me like she’s taking care of it.”
At the disciplinary hearing, Reese explained that she was concerned about the victim but felt she could not ask any more questions in the ex parte hearing without appearing to advocate on her behalf.
“I felt I was in an ethical bind because I couldn’t ask any more questions,” Reese said, becoming emotional as she described her thought process.
The commission concluded the brevity of the hearing — it lasted less than three minutes — and Reese’s sparse questioning violated judicial ethics by not being thorough, competent and diligent before rendering her decision. Based on her explanation, the commission determined training and mentorship to learn how to address similar situations was the appropriate discipline.
Baltimore City Circuit Judge Robert B. Kershaw, attorneys Richard M. Karceski and Marisa A. Trasatti, and civilian member Vernon Hawkins Jr. dissented from the majority’s conclusions.
Updating the rules
Two of the dissenting members of the panel, Karceski and Trasatti, also filed a separate concurrence and dissent laying out what they viewed as shortcomings in the judicial discipline process and a lack of tools available to the commission.
The dissenters are asking the Court of Appeals to review the rules governing the commission to make it “more helpful to judges and less punitive to them” by allowing for a mechanism to get judges education or training in lieu of a reprimand or referral to the Court of Appeals.
After a hearing, the commissioners cannot effectuate training or mentorship for a judge without an agreement of discipline by consent, which requires a judge to admit all or part of the charges, according to the dissent, leaving them “simply hamstrung” in cases such as Reese’s.
“There should exist a process or track that allows the Commission, through investigative counsel, to approach and discuss certain issues with the judge under investigation even after a hearing has occurred,” they write.
Michelle Siri, executive director of the Women’s Law Center, said the organization agrees with the concurring opinion.
“We wholeheartedly believe that judicial education, training, and mentorship for any judge adjudicating protective order hearings will only benefit the community at large,” she said in an emailed statement.
Retired Judge Alan M. Wilner, chair of the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, said Thursday the committee approved recommended rule changes last year around the time Judge Pamela White challenged a public reprimand she received from the commission. White argued the commission violated White’s due process rights; the case is pending in the Court of Appeals.
Wilner said the committee put its recommended changes on hold while the Court of Appeals decides White’s case and now Reese’s as well.
“We may be looking at some additional changes depending on what they do with these cases,” he said.
The Court of Appeals may indicate in any written opinions what rule changes are perceived, which has happened in the past but not in a judicial disabilities case, Wilner said.
“They can do that and even if they don’t, we can look at it anyway and propose things to them that they may accept or not accept,” he said.