Etiquette in Charm City

Baltimore Circuit Judge Alfred Nance is, apparently, not a bad judge when it comes to giving a fair trial.  There’s much to be said about that, since many judges are very pleasant while they screw the defense every way they can.  Yet Judge Nance feels that it’s part of his job to bring put the “charm” in Charm City.

From the Baltimore Sun :

Baltimore circuit judge, who has three times been the subject of judicial disciplinary investigations, ordered a spectator to jail for 10 days for crying out “love you” to her handcuffed brother in the courtroom – and then reversed himself after a public defender spoke up on her behalf.

As Tamika Clevenger left a Baltimore courtroom Friday, she shouted, “Love you, Nick,” which set off Judge Alfred Nance. He ordered a sheriff to pull Clevenger from the hallway and found the 24-year-old in contempt.

Clevenger was cut loose a half hour later, but that doesn’t really undo the damage.  And this was only one fit of pique that day.

“Ma’am, your talking is over,” Nance said. Turning his ire to the other woman, who had stood up from the bench in a strapless top, Nance said, “Young lady, step in the hall. The beach is three blocks down and to the right. It’s not in this courtroom.”

Part of the consideration of what makes a qualified judge is temperament.  Given the scope of authority, not to mention harm, that a judge can do with a mere word or swipe of his pen, it is critical that the people in black robes show restraint in their attitude and demeanor.  Nance is clearly lacking in the temperament department.

There is no question that a judge has the authority to control conduct in his courtroom, ranging from maintaining order to the appropriate decorum.  It’s hardly unusual for spectators to engage in disruptive outbursts, and no one would question a judge’s effort to maintain an appropriate level of control.  Removing askew baseball caps, shutting off cellphones, not screaming at loved/hated ones, are all issues that are properly addressed. 

For anyone reading who isn’t a lawyer, you wouldn’t believe how some people dress to come to court, or behave once they are there, as if they are daring the judge to give them a smack.  It is just mind-bogglingly inappropriate and foolish.  It often borders on laughable, as if they were searching for ways to piss off the judge.  But there are ways to deal with this that give rise to respect.  A calm explanation of why particular attire or conduct is inappropriate, coupled with a warning for the next time, usually serves far better than knee-jerk contempt with a 10 day sentence. This guy’s nuts.

So why, one wonders, is he still sitting on the bench terrorizing people for their etiquette deficits?

“Attorneys are hard-pressed to complain because they fear retaliation,” said Page Croyder, a former deputy state’s attorney who ran for judge in 1998, in part, because of allegations of improper conduct against Nance. “Attorneys know perfectly well that nothing is going to happen to these judges.”

In 2000, a commission that monitors judges’ conduct interviewed four women, then current or former prosecutors, who complained of Nance’s explosive temper and said he had made comments about their appearance and touched their faces, according to a December 2000 Sun article. At that time, State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy complained about his behavior.

The Commission on Judicial Disabilities issued a reprimand, finding that he had demeaned women in court and in chambers and had been “rude” and “hostile” to attorneys in a medical malpractice case.

No doubt Judge Nance was deeply hurt by the reprimand.  The proof can be seen in how he’s mended his ways.

The combination of two factors feeds on each other.  The impotence of the judicial disciplinary mechanism to control judges whose conduct is improper, but not so flagrantly wrong as to warrant their removal, combined with fear of retaliation by the lawyers who have to face these judges on behalf of clients.  Disciplinary commissions complain that unless people bring grievances against judges, there’s nothing they can do.  Lawyers complain that if they bring grievances, the commission does nothing of consequence, and the judge remains on the bench to pay them back for their insolence.

The public is confused by all of this.  How is it possible that a judge like Nance can continue to “teach” charm school in his courtroom with impunity.  There must be some constraint on out-of-control judges, abusing their power like petty tyrants.  There must be, right?

The short answer is that there is little to be done to stop a judge whose improprieties fall short of corruption.  Chances of a judge being removed for lesser improprieties, particularly issues of temperament, are slim, and any lawyer complaining will not only make an enemy of the judge, but will harm future clients in the process.  It’s hard to payback an attorney directly.  It’s far easier to make the client pay.

It’s one of the reasons that a guy with a blawg must highlight and challenge conduct like this, when the locals are either too afraid or too concerned for the harm that might befall their clients.  We all want to see respect prevail in the courtroom.  But respect should be shown by all participants, judge included. 

3 thoughts on “Etiquette in Charm City

  1. Ren LaBlanche

    Finally, a friendly judge. Every time i’ve sat in on hearings, the judges have been anything but nice. I can probably say the same thing about opposing attorneys. Judge Nance makes me see a lot of validity in this.

  2. Robert S. Porter

    I don’t really see why it is necessary for someone to dress “appropriately”. What does it matter if someone comes to court wearing something not normal enough. I can understand recommending wearing nice clothes because of societal norms, but why should the judge car if you’re wearing a tubetop or a pantsuit? And why on earth is it necessary to remove a hat?

    Likewise, why am I not allowed to remain seated when the judge comes in? Since when did they become gods which require our fealty? Why do judges have such discretionary power anyway? The whole concept of “contempt” confuses me.

  3. SHG

    If you pull out each social norm, most don’t make a lot of sense and hence have little real reason to enforce.  They simply develop over time, become accepted, for better or worse, and become part of the social fabric the prevents us from devolving into Lord of the Flies, though we may have finally found a truly appropriate name for Judge Alfred Nance.

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