ANNAPOLIS — The top district court judge in Maryland on Thursday described morale at Baltimore City District Court as “non-existent” as a result of conflicts involving Judge Devy Patterson Russell.
“I hate that this is happening right now,” Chief Judge John P. Morrissey told the Commission on Judicial Disabilities, the state ethics panel weighing disciplinary action against Russell.
Russell is charged with failing to carry out her duties, displaying contempt for instructions from supervisors, unprofessional interactions with other judges and court staff and failing to cooperate with investigators during the disciplinary process.
Morrissey said he was made aware of issues in Baltimore and asked Russell to meet with him in April 2015 to discuss her conflicts with colleagues and urge her to change her behavior.
“The whole point of the meeting (was) to ask Judge Russell to try to get along with her colleagues in Baltimore city because I feared if she didn’t, exactly what is happening here would happen,” he said, adding Russell was “combative, argumentative and very aggressive” in the meeting.
Other judges on the district court have testified Russell berated courtroom clerks and was unprofessional to fellow judges.
Administrative Judge Barbara B. Waxman said Tuesday she contacted Morrissey because “things were out of control” and she needed help dealing with the conflicts.
Morrissey said he told Russell she did not have to like her colleagues but they had to get along and cautioned her the repeated issues could end up being a disciplinary concern.
“I was hopeful that some of this, upon reflection by Devy, would sink in,” he said.
But Morrissey said he continued to receive complaints from Russell — who copied him and Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera on emails — as well as complaints from other judges about Russell.
“It would peak and there would be times where months would go by and there’d be nothing then it would start up again,” he said.
Retired Court of Appeals Judge Joseph F. Murphy presided over mediation between Waxman and Russell in 2016 at Morrissey’s request but the session did not resolve matters. When Russell sent an “open letter” to fellow judges last October, Morrissey was forwarded a copy.
“It was extremely unusual,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
Russell’s letter alleged mistreatment by her colleagues. Fourteen of the judges then signed a response to the letter also sent to Morrissey. Judges also sent him individual responses.
“I didn’t know what to do about the open letter,” he said. “I now have 16, 17 judges all in a dispute with Judge Russell.”
Morrissey said he was troubled that a judge would write a letter criticizing colleagues.
“Quite frankly, I was concerned for the well-being of Judge Russell,” he said.
William C. Brennan Jr., Russell’s attorney, characterized Russell’s emails as “keeping (Morrissey) in the loop” about her concerns, and he questioned whether Morrissey ever investigated her allegations.
Morrissey said he did not believe he had the authority to investigate judges but could only give advice where possible and otherwise refer matters to the commission, which he eventually did with the issues surrounding Russell.
“I was kind of passing the hot potato to them,” he said of referring the matter to investigative counsel for the commission.
Russell’s husband, U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III, testified Thursday he assisted with the emails his wife drafted to colleagues beginning in early 2015 when problems started.
“I did it because I wanted to make sure that the language that was used was not inflammatory,” he said.
George Russell said the open letter to colleagues in October 2017 was his idea.
“I wanted to mend fences,” he said. “This circumstance was affecting our family. This circumstance was unnecessary. We wanted it resolved.”
Commission Vice Chair Susan H. Hazlett, a Prince George’s County District Court judge, asked why the open letter used words accusing judges of harassment, bullying and sabotage if he wanted to avoid being inflammatory.
“This was your olive branch?” she said.
Russell said it was referring to specific judges and not inflammatory in context.
Russell also said he thought his wife should document what they believed was mistreatment.
“She was not being told why she was being treated in the way she was being treated,” he said, referencing her removal from certain courthouse and docket assignments.
Devy Russell also called in her defense court personnel and police who testified they never had problems with her and found her to be a polite colleague.
District Judge L. Robert Cooper said Russell had a good reputation with some staff and judges but was not as well liked by others.
“There are some judges, certainly, who get along better than others and hang out in groups,” he said in response to Brennan’s question about “cliques” at the district court.
Cooper said he was not aware of any time Russell refused to do any work assigned to her.
Bailiff Charles Porter called Russell “genuine” and said bailiffs never had complaints about her. Larry Johnston, the former supervising bailiff for Baltimore City District Court, said Russell was “cordial, professional and friendly.”
Devy Russell is expected to testify in her defense but Brennan requested that not occur Friday but instead Nov. 5, when proceedings are scheduled to resume.