ANNAPOLIS — A controversial Baltimore City District Court judge is accused of using her influence to attempt to embarrass another judge in 2015, according to testimony before a judicial ethics panel on Monday.
The Commission on Judicial Disabilities recommended a six-month suspension for Judge Devy Patterson Russell last November after finding her conduct toward court staff and fellow judges violated judicial ethics rules. The Court of Appeals, which must ultimately implement any sanction recommended by the commission, heard arguments in March and has not yet ruled.
Russell was brought up on additional charges, made public in April, that accuse her of trying to manipulate an incident report to cast Judge Katie O’Malley, also on the Baltimore district court, in a bad light. Investigators for the commission contend Russell committed sanctionable conduct by using her office to advance her personal interest, interfering with court business, failing to cooperate with other judges and employees and giving a perception of impropriety.
A hearing began Monday in Annapolis and is to continue on Aug. 5 and 6. Investigators sought to convince the commission that Russell disliked O’Malley and was particularly frustrated in March 2015 after O’Malley was given a permanent chambers assignment (District Court judges in Baltimore rotate through assignments at the four city courthouses and do not typically have fixed offices).
Investigative Counsel Tanya C. Bernstein said that Russell complained about the chambers assignment, given based on seniority, and said that it motivated her to attempt to get O’Malley in trouble. Bernstein said Russell’s conduct shows a “lack of respect for the office that she holds.”
Baltimore City District Court Administrative Judge Barbara B. Waxman testified Monday that Russell did not like O’Malley and that her dislike was “very common knowledge.” In January 2015, Russell reported to Waxman that she heard that O’Malley had used profanity in court to a citizen, which Waxman said she investigated by reviewing the audio recording from O’Malley’s courtroom.
“If a judge is using profanity, I want to make sure it’s not directed at a citizen,” Waxman said.
Waxman said she determined that a person in the courtroom had used profanity and that O’Malley was repeating it back when she used it herself. Waxman closed the file and determined no action should be taken.
On March 10, 2015, Russell spoke with supervising bailiff Nella Altadonna about the incident and accused O’Malley of swearing at a citizen; she asked why the profanity had been left out of an incident report and waited while the bailiff who witnessed the interaction was summoned. The bailiff said he recalled O’Malley using the profanity and added an addendum to the report.
Altadonna testified that she did not know at the time why Russell was asking about the incident and “didn’t feel comfortable about it.”
Nevertheless, Altadonna said that “a judge” — Russell — “asked me for something” and said that she and the witnessing bailiff complied with Russell’s request to include the profanity in the report.
Altadonna at times had trouble recalling events, noting that it had been more than four years since the incident, and said some details were “hazy,” but investigators introduced a report she wrote three days after Russell came to see her that she sent to Waxman.
Waxman learned about the addendum on March 11, when she received a call and was told that Russell was showing other judges the updated report and claiming, “Katie used the F bomb and I have proof.”
Judge Joan Bossmann Gordon testified that Russell did not like O’Malley “at all” and complained about the permanent chambers assignment after it was made. She said sometime in March she heard Russell in the hall speaking loudly to someone about O’Malley being “in trouble.”
Waxman said that she met with Altadonna and the bailiff and played the recording, at which time the bailiff was upset that his recollection had been inaccurate and apologized. He wrote a new report about the incident that was consistent with the audio recording.
Russell’s attorney, William C. Brennan Jr., of Brennan, McKenna & Lawlor Chtd. in Greenbelt, told the commission that Waxman wanted to know about any noteworthy incidents and thanked Russell after she reported what she had heard. He also said Russell never dictated what was to be in a report and had not listened to the audio herself to know what happened in O’Malley’s courtroom.
Brennan objected to questions to Waxman and Gordon about comments Russell made to them about O’Malley, calling it a “dangerous precedent” if private expressions of opinions about other judges are a violation of judicial ethics.
“We’re getting far afield of sanctionable conduct,” he said.
Investigators argued and commission chair Judge Michael W. Reed agreed the opinions themselves were not the basis for charges against Russell but rather go toward her motive to manipulate the situation.
The hearing is scheduled to continue Aug. 5 in the Court of Special Appeals.