Commission Says to Remove Baltimore Judge Accused of ‘Disrespectful and Unprofessional Conduct’

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Chief Judge Alfred Nance

Chief Judge Alfred Nance has long been known for for his stern courtroom demeanor. But according to the state’s Commission on Judicial Disabilities, which investigates complaints against judges, his comments in several court trials in 2015 went too far, and are worthy of his removal from the bench.

In a 21-page recommendation handed down yesterday, the commission wrote that his comments in one case were “undignified, condescending, and unprofessional,” and in three collective cases “clearly demonstrate a pattern of serious violations of the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct that strike at the very heart of the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary and the public’s confidence in such integrity and impartiality.”

Prosecutors who pushed for Nance’s punishment relied largely upon hours of courtroom footage to make their case. Evidence came from three trials, all of them held in 2015 and all involving public defender Debbie Katz Levi, who filed a complaint against Nance the following year. He was accused of berating her in court and speaking condescendingly to defendants and, in some cases, the jurors.

Some highlights, coming from Nance’s mouth:

  • To defendant David Blackwell in December 2015: “If you want to play with yourself, wait until you get back to your cell.”
  • To jurors in May 2015: “You look happy as can be,” responding to a juror who said she suffers from depression; “I’m having trouble hearing your master’s degree voice”; “I don’t know why you should sleep and I can’t.”
  • To Levi in June 2015: “Shut up and listen”; “I have no idea what she’s doing,” directed at the jury; “You are hovering like a mother hen”; “what’s your problem?”; calling her “lady” repeatedly; and threatening her with jail time at the city’s detention center, “so that she can live amongst those she supposedly represents.”

In the case that went to trial in May and June of 2015, Nance ultimately declared a mistrial because he said Levi’s conduct had prejudiced the jury against her client. Levi seized upon that opportunity to get the charges against her client – a man who’d been accused of fatally stabbing his girlfriend’s father 35 times – dismissed by another judge, setting him free.

Some will also recall him for decision to ban note-taking for non-credentialed media during the recently concluded criminal trial for Keith Davis Jr., or for overturning Michael Johnson’s murder conviction during sentencing in 2013 for the Phylicia Barnes case.

Nance responded formally to Levi’s accusations last year by denying that he committed any ethical violations. At hearings, his lawyer has defended Nance’s demeanor as “old school” and said he “expects lawyers to be at their best,” per The Sun.

The commission that recommended his punishment disagreed. Members unanimously voted that he committed “sanctionable conduct” and said a public reprimand or a suspension would be ineffective at stopping him from repeating his behavior.

Nance received a public reprimand once before in 2001, when female prosecutors complained about his temper and said he commented on their appearance.

While the commission has recommended he be removed entirely and not allowed to return to the bench, the Maryland Court of Appeals will have the final say in issuing his punishment.

Nance is 69 and would be required to retire anyway when he hits 70, under the Maryland Constitution. However, Maryland does allow an option for appointed senior judges to hear cases on a temporary basis. If he’s removed, he wouldn’t be permitted to return in such a post.

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
Ethan McLeod
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