By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Sept. 12, 2007
Baltimore County District Court Judge Bruce Lamdin is known for telling it like it is (“Bench Talk,” Mobtown Beat, April 18), but the rhetorical boundaries he crossed on the bench may end up unseating him for a spell. On Aug. 28, 10 members of the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities (CJD), which is responsible for holding judges accountable for their conduct, unanimously ruled that Lamdin’s pattern of making inappropriate comments from the bench were “actionable conduct” for a judge. The CJD’s order recommended to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, that Lamdin be suspended for 30 work days without pay and that his courtroom behavior be monitored regularly by CJD staff.
If the Court of Appeals accepts the commission’s recommendation, Lamdin, who was appointed in 2002 by then-Gov. Parris Glendening, will become the first Maryland judge to be suspended without pay as a result of the 41-year-old commission’s work since 1996. That’s the year the CJD was reconstituted after public outcry over its toothless leniency in disciplining judges who made outrageous comments about crimes against women. Since then, its public cases normally have resulted in reprimands. In some instances, judges have resigned rather than face the commission’s charges in public hearings.
Lamdin’s case looked like it was headed to a reprimand, too, but was ratcheted up to a recommendation for suspension after the June 18 hearing on the matter before the commission. The CJD’s counsel, Peter Keith, and Lamdin’s attorney, Alvin Franklin, had mutually agreed to a public reprimand, the written decision explains, but the commission felt that wasn’t sufficient. “The imposition of a public reprimand,” the commissioners wrote, “is not commensurate with the serious pattern of misconduct in office committed by Judge Lamdin and does not not reassure the public that Judge Lamdin will be deterred from making similar comments in the future.”
Now that the CJD has sent it recommendation to the Court of Appeals, Lamdin’s legal options are spelled out in the Maryland Rules of Procedure. He has 30 days from the date he received the commission’s order to file “exceptions” to it with the high court, and, if he does so, the commissioners have another 15 days to respond to them. Then a hearing is scheduled, after which the Court of Appeals may do one of three things: impose sanctions (either those recommended by the CJD, or any others permitted by law), dismiss the case, or send it back for more proceedings. If Lamdin chooses not to file exceptions, then the Court of Appeals may reach its decision without a hearing.
Lamdin stipulated to the commissioners that his courtroom speech in 14 cases before him violated the state’s Canons of Judicial Conduct, and the commissioners found his comments to be “undignified, discourteous, and disparaging.” His offensive speech included comments about children, the Baltimore City judiciary, the Maryland correctional system, the state of Pennsylvania, the Baltimore County Circuit Court and its judges, and drug treatment. “Do you think I just came in on the watermelon truck today?” he asked one defendant. To another, he declared that “if there is a pile of shit there you’ll step in it,” according to the CJD’s findings of fact in the case.
Lamdin failed to impress the commissioners during the June 18 hearing, according to the written order. “During his sworn testimony at the Hearing,” the order reads, “Judge Lamdin admitted that his stipulated comments were ‘wrong,’ but never indicated any appreciation of exactly what was ‘wrong’ about those comments. … Judge Lamdin expressed no remorse for his comments; instead, he attempted to justify his comments through explanations and excuses. In response to questions from members of the Commission, Judge Lamdin was generally defensive, sometimes evasive, and, on at least one occasion, arrogant and hostile.”
The hearing was lively, if transcripts set down in the order are any indication. Lamdin grew combative with commissioner Paul Shelton, for example, who had asked Lamdin whether he would still tell “a person that appeared before you that the Circuit Court judges are spending the afternoon drinking cocktails?” Though Lamdin was stipulating that his from-the-bench comments broke rules of judicial behavior, he sometimes tried to defend them. For instance, when he had asked a lawyer whether his client’s head was “out of where he had it inserted earlier today,” Lamdin told the commissioners, “I think the comment fit the situation quite frankly at the time.”
Lamdin told the commissioners that, in some instances when his speech turned offensive, he was attempting humor. Such was the case, he explained, when he had described himself to a defendant as “a merciless SOB” – a comment he told the commissioners had been taken “out of context” in CJD’s charges. Another attempt at humor, which he admitted was “a mistake,” was when he said this in open court: “I get in trouble because I told some lady we confiscate cell phones and we put the cell phones in plastic bags and send them down to Annapolis. I suggested maybe we ought to do the same thing with children except poke holes in the bag.” In regard to this, the commissioners wrote that Lamdin “never expressed remorse, nor did he acknowledge that his disparaging comments about children in [that instance] might lead the public to believe that he was biased or prejudiced against children.”
The general excuse Lamdin offered regarding his offensive speech was that he was trying to communicate to defendants in “terms [they] could understand.” When the commissioner’s chairman, Court of Special Appeals Judge Patrick L. Woodward, asked what Lamdin was doing now that was different from before the charges arose, Lamdin said he was taking defendants back to his chambers to talk because “I can find out where their true desire is and whether they really want treatment or help, of if they’re a lost cause. And if they’re a lost cause there’s not much time to be wasted on talking to them.” The commissioners wrote about this answer: “Did he intend to continue using profanity, vulgarity, and name-calling, only now ‘back in chambers,’ or did he simply want a setting more conducive to finding out whether he could help a particular defendant? The commission truly hopes that it is the latter. Nevertheless, Judge Lamdin’s answer is disturbing to the Commission.”
Reached by phone at his court office in Towson on Sept. 7, Lamdin was characteristically feisty: “Why would you think I would want to talk to you?” he asked. When told a reporter must attempt to contact the subject of a story, he added, “I have nothing to say.” Asked whether he intended to file exceptions to the CJD’s order, Lamdin referred questions to his attorney, Alvin Frederick. As of press time, Frederick had not returned messages. Keith and staff at the CJD declined to comment on the case.
The CJD’s business is done largely in private, and only enters the public domain when the matter rises to a level of severity that calls for a hearing by the commission. Approximately 53 cases taken by the commission since 1996 resulted in measures that fell short of the public-hearing threshold, such as warning letters, private reprimands, or probationary terms. Eleven cases involved public outcomes – a dismissal, nine reprimands, ad a recommendation for removal from the bench.
Nationwide in 2006, only 18 judges were suspended without pay, according to Cynthia Gray, who tracks such things as director of the Center for Judicial Ethics of the American Judicature Society.
Lamdin has backers, including attorney David Irwin, who says he wrote a character letter to the commission to defend the judge. Irwin has in the past served as co-counsel with Lamdin before Lamdin became a judge. “I’ve just known and admired Judge Lamdin for a long time, and I hope it’s not over for him,” Irwin says, adding that “he’s a really good judge, and it saddens me” to hear of the recommended suspension.