September 9, 2012

THE WOMAN appearing before Baltimore County District Judge Bruce S. Lamdin was seeking protection from her husband. She detailed her injuries from one assault, told how he almost burned their house down and said that her husband, medically retired from the Army for post-traumatic stress disorder, was drinking more.

“I believe he is a threat to the safety and well-being of my children,” she said, asking for him to be removed from the home.

For 30 minutes, the 33-year-old woman was subjected to blistering questions about her motives and decisions. Reduced to tears, she ultimately was granted the temporary protective order but not before the judge declared it — with the husband looking on — to be “nothing more than a piece of paper. You can hold a piece of paper up in front of this gentleman, and he can shoot you right through it.”

The Dec. 12 incident, which only recently came to light, has jolted the Maryland legal community. The Women’s Law Center filed a complaint against Judge Lamdin with the Commission on Judicial Disabilities. He’s been ordered not to hear any cases until the investigation is completed; he has declined comment.

Advocates for victims of domestic violence said that the exchange is a textbook case of how women who have been abused are treated as if they did something wrong; of misplaced concern for the alleged batterer (“Where is he going to live if I put him out of the house?”); and of ignorance about the options abused women face (“You can get out of there anytime you want”). Such behavior provides little encouragement to vulnerable women to see the courts as the institution that can help protect their safety. That District Court Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn took the unusual step of ordering Judge Lamdin to conduct “chambers only” work — a decision apparently reached upon listening to the audiotape — sends an important message to the bench.

The case also raises troubling questions about Maryland’s judicial reappointment process. Judge Lamdin is nearing the end of a 10-year term, but under the state constitution, the governor has no choice but to reappoint him, subject to confirmation by the state Senate. What makes this even more outrageous is that Judge Lamdin was suspended in 2008 from the bench for 30 days by the Court of Appeals for conduct that was “prejudicial to the administration of justice, manifested bias toward many groups and lacked dignity, courtesy, and patience.”

Judicial confirmation hearings are generally pro-forma affairs; those who are in the best position to flag possible problems with a judge (attorneys, court employees, other members of the bench) keep quiet for fear of angering a judge who likely will get reappointed. The 2011 incident came to light only after Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County) had his staff review the docket, a painstaking process that took months.

Judges need to be above politics and not subject to pressure. But a system that treats their reappointment as automatic — with limited oversight or opportunity for meaningful citizen feedback — calls out for reform.