Character in a Courtroom Drama

By Allison Klein and Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 17, 2005

To understand Prince George's District Judge Richard A. Palumbo, friends say, consider this display of moxie when he was still a Maryland legislator:

Palumbo strode into the powerful House Judiciary Committee to see his friend Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's), the committee's chairman. Vallario wasn't there. So Palumbo plunked himself down in Vallario's seat and conducted the meeting for several minutes.

"Richie doesn't have inhibitions," said Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, who witnessed the brief meeting takeover in the early 1990s, when Palumbo was a Prince George's delegate.

Now four years into a 10-year term as an appointed District Court judge, Palumbo is a man who arrives late, speaks loudly and gestures grandly. He cuts off people who are appearing before him. He makes wisecracks at the expense of his buddies and himself, often mocking his own diminutive stature and large girth, which are optimistically listed at 5 feet 4 inches and 180 pounds on his driver's license.

Today, Palumbo finds himself temporarily removed from the bench amid controversy over his handling of domestic violence cases, two traffic incidents and other issues. His decision to dismiss a protective order against a man who later allegedly set his wife on fire has prompted calls for his permanent removal.

Palumbo, 67, was appointed to the bench in 2001 by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D). An old-school politician who first took office in the 1970s, Palumbo tells everyone to call him Richie and literally slaps people on the back.

Prince George's County's demographics and government have changed dramatically since Palumbo entered the public arena. Today, it is the country's wealthiest majority-black county, its leadership is majority black, its judiciary is more diversified, and scrutiny of public officials is more intense.

Through all the shifts, Palumbo, who is white, has remained a well-known figure, one seen by his critics as increasingly out of touch and insensitive to victims, especially women.

Advocates for women are willing to make those complaints publicly. Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld (D-Montgomery), who worked on women's issues before becoming a state legislator, said concerns existed about Palumbo even when he was in the legislature.

"I don't think any advocate familiar with the legislature is unfamiliar with the anti-victim, anti-woman attitude of Judge Palumbo," she said.

Some in the legal community also criticize his approach but say they won't speak openly because they don't want to antagonize a sitting judge.

Palumbo's friends -- some of whom are among the most powerful men in Maryland -- say he is a misunderstood, bighearted man who as a lawyer quietly took on clients he believed in even if they could not pay him.

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