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Judges’ character references to AGC raise ethics concerns

Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Former federal district and appellate court judge Andre Davis says the ethics advisory is a sound one. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Judges may not write letters to the Attorney Grievance Commission attesting to the character of their ex-law clerks or other former lawyer-employees facing ethical complaints, lest the jurists’ messages be viewed as applying undue pressure on the lawyer-dominated disciplinary panel, the Maryland Judicial Ethics Committee stated Tuesday.

Quoting from the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct, the committee said a judge may provide such a character defense only when “duly subpoenaed” during a legal proceeding and not in response to an ethics complaint.

“A judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the personal or economic interests of the judge, or allow others to do so,” the code states.

Former federal judge Andre M. Davis said Wednesday that he supports the ethics committee’s prohibition on judges writing character references, citing the perceived influence of the bench.

“When a judge writes a letter, that’s tipping the scales,” said Davis, who served on both the U.S. District Court in Baltimore and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “The judge is presumed to be sober and have integrity.”

Davis offered four words of his advice for judges aching to write on behalf of loyal former employees in potential trouble with the grievance commission: “Wait for the subpoena.”

In its published opinion, the ethics panel stated that a judge’s prestige can be especially influential on the AGC, where nine of the 12 members are attorneys – who may appear before the judge. The AGC can dismiss the complaint against the former employee or direct the filing of a petition for disciplinary action with Maryland’s top court, the Court of Appeals.

The ethics committee rejected the argument that judges could reduce their perceived influence by submitting their character defenses on simple stationery and stating they are offering their opinion in their personal capacity.

Judges are cautioned “against any perception of an attempt to exert pressure by reason of the judicial office,” the panel stated. “The receipt of a letter from a judge to a body of lawyers considering disciplinary action against a colleague could not fail to carry the perception of exerting pressure whether or not the letter is written on letterhead stationery.”

The committee stated it issued the opinion in response to a question posed by an unnamed “requestor.”

Maryland Court of Special Appeals Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff chairs the 13-member committee, which consists of six sitting judges, three former judges, a circuit court clerk, a judicial appointee and two people who are neither lawyers nor employed by the Maryland Judiciary.

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