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.
The latest controversy involving Palumbo began Oct. 10, when Yvette Cade's husband, Roger B. Hargrave, allegedly walked into the Clinton store where she worked, doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. Cade suffered third-degree burns and remains hospitalized.
Reports emerged quickly that three weeks earlier, Palumbo had dismissed Cade's protective order against her husband. A recording of the hearing showed that Palumbo made flip remarks to Cade from the bench.
When Cade told him she wanted "an immediate and absolute divorce," he responded: "I'd like to be 6-foot-5, but that's not what we do here. You have to go to divorce court for that."
Palumbo has said that he meant to retain the order and that its dismissal was a clerical error. He and his attorney, William C. Brennan, declined to comment for this article.
Palumbo's friends defend him.
"That's just Richie being Richie," said retired Circuit Court Judge Vincent J. Femia, one of Palumbo's closest and oldest friends.
"He's a poor man's Joe Pesci," Femia said. "Ask any lawyer, 'Who's "My Cousin Vinny" in Prince George's County?' Ten out of 10 will say Richie Palumbo."
But advocates for victims of domestic violence say they see a distressing pattern in Palumbo's conduct. They point to the case of a Prince George's man who allegedly attacked his wife in May, five months after Palumbo dismissed a temporary protective order against him. Then they speak of a woman who came before Palumbo with a crushed voice box after her husband had allegedly attacked her, only to be told by Palumbo to "speak up."
The effectiveness of protective orders is a subject of debate, with some saying they have an empowering effect on the people seeking them and others maintaining that they give victims a false sense of security.
Emphasis on Ethics
Palumbo first entered politics by winning a seat in the House of Delegates in 1979. At that time, the Prince George's population was majority white, and statewide and local political power was wielded almost exclusively by white men, said William B. Lewis, chairman of the department of history and government at Bowie State University. That's no longer true.
More generally, he said, public expectations of government have changed statewide.
"There has also been an increased emphasis on ethics in government in Maryland in recent years," Lewis said. "You can't get away with things you used to in the 1970s. It's absolutely different. I think the public expects more when it comes to ethical behavior."
Lewis noted that several lobbyists and some state lawmakers have been prosecuted, and in some cases convicted of crimes, for ethical lapses.
"You have to change with the times," Lewis said. "What was acceptable in 1970 is not acceptable today."
The composition of the bench in Maryland has also changed dramatically. Before Glendening was elected governor in 1994, the vast majority of judges were white males. Glendening made a point of diversifying the bench with women and minorities.
Bereano, one of the lobbyists convicted after an ethical lapse, said Palumbo has "a very big heart and a unique personality." Palumbo was one of dozens of people who wrote letters to a judge in 1995 to support Bereano and help keep him out of prison after Bereano was convicted of defrauding clients.
"He always makes jokes about his own height. He always tries to be funny. A lot of times humor can be misinterpreted," said Bereano, who met Palumbo in the Prince George's courthouse in the early 1970s when they were young lawyers. "He's like a magnet. He draws people to him. He's exciting, uplifting. He's not vanilla. He's always multicolored."
Members of Cade's family have called for Palumbo to be thrown off the bench and asked the state's Judicial Disabilities Commission to investigate the judge's conduct in the case. They are organizing an anti-Palumbo petition drive online.
Last month, Palumbo's troubles intensified when it was reported that a Maryland trooper had deviated from official procedure in February in voiding a speeding ticket he had written for Palumbo. Six months after that incident, other troopers found Palumbo at fault in a two-vehicle collision in Charles County but did not cite him.
On the day an article about the voided ticket appeared in The Washington Post, the state's chief administrative district court judge took Palumbo off the bench temporarily and reassigned him to administrative duties.
Palumbo had another traffic problem in 2001. Two weeks after he was sworn in as a judge, he was cited by county police for failing to remain at the scene of an accident after the 1998 Mercedes-Benz he was driving hit a county shuttle bus. Palumbo was subsequently acquitted of leaving the scene and was fined $100 for speeding.
The Post also has reported that Palumbo, who is required to reside in the county in which he is a judge, claims two houses on tax forms as his principal residence, one in Hyattsville in Prince George's and one in neighboring Charles.
When he built the two-story, 6,148-square-foot home in Port Tobacco in the early 1990s, he was fined by the Maryland Department of the Environment for building a driveway without permits and extending it into protected wetlands.
He had at least two violations over a three-year span for the same infringement, according to news reports at the time. A spokesman for the department said last week that he could confirm that Palumbo paid a fine, but he did not have access to details.
According to Femia, when Palumbo custom-built his Charles County home, he had a luxury apartment built on the second floor for his ailing mother-in-law, so his wife and he could care for her.
In addition to the Charles and Hyattsville homes, Palumbo owns a home on Tilghman Island on the Chesapeake Bay and has investment properties. "When God needs a loan, he calls Richie," Femia said.
A Man Misunderstood?
Palumbo was born and raised in Newark, one of nine siblings. He attended the University of Maryland and earned his law degree from the University of Baltimore School of Law in 1970. He became a prosecutor in Prince George's, then a defense lawyer, and in 1979 was elected to represent the county in the Maryland legislature.
While he was there, he was known as a colorful character and was quoted in a 1989 Post article about lawmakers' waistlines, lamenting that he had ballooned to 200 pounds.
"You go to a reception, and you are talking with someone about something important to them," he said. "They have a drink in their hand, you have a drink. They are plucking shrimp off a shrimp tree, so you pluck some, too. You go talk to a second guy, and someone comes by with a meatball tray, so you grab a meatball. Move on to guy number three, he's standing near some stuffed mushrooms. He eats one. You eat one. . . . You end up eating both sides of an issue."
As a legislator, Palumbo solidified his friendship with Vallario, one of the most influential politicians in the state, becoming godfather to one of his children. Vallario declined to be interviewed for this article.
Palumbo served on Vallario's House Judiciary Committee, where he earned a reputation in some women's advocate circles as being callous toward their causes.
Grosfeld said the current controversy over Palumbo is unsurprising: "I question why the hierarchy of the courts and the judges couldn't have foreseen or predicted these problems."
But Palumbo's friends insist that this is all a misunderstanding, something he will ultimately outlast.
"He just shakes his head and says, 'I can't believe this is happening. I didn't rule against this woman,' " Femia said of Palumbo.
Femia described Palumbo's mind-set: "Take your best shot, because I didn't do anything wrong."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.