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Md. high court hears Baltimore judge’s appeal of sanction

Devy Patterson Russell faces six-month suspension

ANNAPOLIS – The attorney for an embattled Baltimore District Court judge told Maryland’s top court Monday that the jurist cannot be sanctioned for having “personality disputes” with fellow judges and court personnel.

But the state’s judicial disciplinary board countered that the behavior of Judge Devy Patterson Russell, whom the panel found to have threatened and berated colleagues in front of others, warranted a six-month suspension without pay.

The Court of Appeals is reviewing the Commission on Judicial Disabilities’ finding that Russell’s “volatile” and “unpredictable” behavior was “responsible for the enormously difficult work environment” at the district court and warrants the sanction.

Russell’s attorney, William C. Brennan Jr., called the commission’s penalty an overreach.

Russell, though certainly “opinionated (and) not shy,” has not been accused of misbehavior toward any attorney or litigant or the general public in her courtroom – actions that would warrant sanction because they interfere with the administration of justice, Brennan said.

“They (the commission) made themselves the personality police,” he said.

In calling for Russell’s suspension, the commission is telling judges that if “you express yourself behind the scenes, you are going to be brought up on charges,” continued Brennan, of Brennan McKenna & Lawlor Chtd. in Greenbelt.

But Kendra Randall Jolivet, the commission’s attorney, told the high court that “judges should maintain the dignity of the judicial office at all times” and observe the “highest standard” of personal and professional decorum beyond the courtroom.

Russell has displayed a “blatant disregard” for appropriate judicial behavior, Jolivet said.

In a November finding, the commission concluded that Russell’s behavior toward fellow judges and court personnel was “undignified, uncooperative, discourteous, demeaning.” The panel, which heard from more than a dozen judges regarding Russell and the courthouse environment, found her behavior created a “difficult, uncomfortable, tense and unprofessional work environment.”

The commission also recommended that Russell attend anger-management classes, Jolivet told the high court.

But Court of Appeals Judge Joseph M. Getty questioned whether the commission was being too strict, noting the panel cited nine instances of misbehavior, including yelling, in the six-year period between 2012 and 2018.

“Where do you draw the line between personality conflict and sanctionable conduct?” Getty asked. “Are judges not allowed to raise their voices?”

Court of Appeals Judge Michele D. Hotten voiced a similar concern, wondering aloud how the commission can “objectively measure” a judge’s demeanor as sanctionable.

Jolivet responded that Russell’s behavior toward others was not just an “an interpersonal issue” but sank to the level of “bullying.”

Jolivet cited the commission’s factual findings that Russell had 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 about issues at the Baltimore District Court, the commission found.

But Brennan, Russell’s attorney, told the high court that the judge’s behavior toward colleagues was not sanctionable because it occurred “behind the scenes” in the courthouse and did not filter into the courtroom.

Russell’s behavior “did not involve a lawyer, did not involve the public, did not involve a party,” Brennan said, adding that the judge’s email communications were simply her attempt to keep “the chain of command” aware of what was happening in the district court.

“My client is an excellent judge,” Brennan said.

The Court of Appeals is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31 in the case, In the Matter of the Honorable Devy Patterson Russell, JD No. 1.

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