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Panel recommends 6-month suspension for Baltimore judge

A judicial discipline panel has recommended the immediate six-month suspension of a Baltimore City District Court judge they determined to be “volatile, unpredictable, and responsible for the enormously difficult work environment” at the District Court.

The Commission on Judicial Disabilities deliberated for more than 12 hours before determining that Judge Devy Patterson Russell committed sanctionable conduct by yelling at fellow judges and court staff, disrupting court proceedings and failing to properly process search warrants.

The commission heard from 21 witnesses for investigative counsel, of which 15 were judges, and 15 witnesses for Russell over the course of a multi-day hearing. The commission released its findings of fact, conclusions of law, order and recommendations Friday. The case has been referred to the Court of Appeals for final action.

“The Commission has found that the comments and behaviors of Judge Russell were undignified, uncooperative, discourteous, demeaning, and clearly demonstrate a pattern of serious violations of the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct that strike at the very heart of the integrity of the judiciary and the public’s confidence in such integrity,” the commission wrote.

After making factual findings relating to violations of the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct, the commission also noted the testimony of witnesses from both sides about the atmosphere at Baltimore’s courthouses when Russell is working there. Witnesses said people were “walking on eggshells” and shut their doors when Russell was assigned to a building, according to the findings. Judges said the atmosphere was hostile, uncomfortable and caused concern.

“The Commission has no doubt that this difficult, uncomfortable, tense and unprofessional work environment is created by Respondent and her behavior,” the commission concluded.

Russell denied allegations of discourteous and bullying behavior and testified that she was not responsible for the tense atmosphere, accusing her colleagues of isolating her. She said in 2015 she began being removed from schedules and having her work limited and questioned why, believing she was being targeted due to her support of a discrimination lawsuit filed by a former clerk against a longtime court employee. The commission did not permit testimony about the lawsuit.

She testified that she sent an open letter to her colleagues alleging mistreatment because she felt the situation was beginning to affect her ability to serve the public.

“All I ever asked for and all I have ever asked … is that I be treated like every other district court judge and that I be given the opportunity to do my job and sit in every court and every docket,” she told the commission.

But the panel felt Russell “acknowledged engaging in various of these behaviors, but expressed no regret” and “fails to see herself as the common denominator in these incidents.”

The commission concluded Russell called Administrative Judge Barbara B. Waxman “a complete and utter incompetent vicious coward” in front of court staff; entered Judge Mark Scurti’s chambers uninvited and “proceeded to yell and scream” in front of another judge; yelled at court staff in a hallway outside of a courtroom; pushed a clerk in a courthouse; and screamed at other judges in front of staff.

Russell also failed to comply with instructions from District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey, who met with Russell in 2015 and advised her to stop copying him and Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera on emails complaining of issues at the District Court, the commission found.

Morrissey told the commission Russell was “combative, argumentative and very aggressive” at that meeting and based on later reports from the District Court, her behavior toward colleagues did not change.

The panel also determined Russell did not properly process search warrants in a timely manner by packaging them, once they had been executed and returned, and transmitting them to the clerk.

Russell’s attorney, William C. Brennan Jr. of Brennan, McKenna & Lawlor Chtd. in Greenbelt, could not be reached for comment Friday.

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