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Daily Record: Md. board denies judge’s request for $86K to pay for legal defense

Md. board denies judge’s request for $86K to pay for legal defense

June 19, 2019

By: Bryan P. Sears and Heather Cobun

ANNAPOLIS — The Board of Public Works has denied a request by a district court judge who was seeking reimbursement of more than $86,000 in legal fees for her successful defense against a judicial ethics complaint.

The money, which would have come from a contingency fund managed by the board, would have reimbursed Howard County District Judge Mary C. Reese for expenses incurred as she defended herself before the Commission on Judicial Disabilities.

“Obviously she was entitled to get an attorney and go before a court,” Comptroller Peter Franchot said. “It’s entirely appropriate. I don’t think it’s appropriate for the state taxpayers to foot her legal bill given the context of her comments.”

Reese was seeking reimbursement for expenses related to her legal defense through a contingency fund managed by the three-member board. The $500,000 fund, established in 1968, has been used for paying for official portraits, emergency storm cleanup, evacuating Maryland students stranded abroad, and legal fees.

In 2001 and 2007, the board voted to reimburse two other judges approximately $1,000 each for legal expenses.

“These cases do not come up that often,” said Philip Andrews, a principal at Kramon & Graham P.A. and one of the attorneys representing Reese. “We believe this case … merits the message being sent to public servants like Judge Reese, who was just doing her job.”

Franchot was joined by Gov. Larry Hogan in rejecting the request for reimbursement, saying it was inappropriate. The decision by the three-member board means Reese will be stuck footing an $86,433 bill. Franchot said Reese offered “unwarranted and unnecessary comments that seem to normalize domestic violence.”

Treasurer Nancy Kopp voted to approve the funding request, calling the denial unfair to Reese.

“It just doesn’t seem right to me that a public servant should have to be out of pocket almost $90,000 when her position was upheld by the Court (of Appeals),” said Kopp.

But Hogan and Franchot focused on a sanctions against Reese three years ago by the Commission on Judicial Disabilities despite those sanctions being nullified by more recent Court of Appeals decision.

The commission found that Reese committed sanctionable conduct in a 2015 relationship violence hearing. Reese challenged the finding, and the Maryland Court of Appeals dismissed the proceedings against her, finding her performance “belies any rational finding of a lack of competence or diligence on her part.”

The commission had concluded that the brevity of the 2015 hearing — it lasted less than three minutes — and Reese’s sparse questioning violated judicial ethics by not being thorough, competent and diligent.

Four members of the 10-person commission dissented in the decision, concluding that “Judge Reese’s conduct was well within the boundaries of her independent judicial discretion and consistent with the testimony of each of the persuasive character witnesses who appeared on Judge Reese’s behalf.”

The Court of Appeals agreed with the dissenters and said though “reasonable minds could differ” about Reese’s decisions, they were “rooted in consideration of the law and the factual circumstances.”

Andrews unsuccessfully urged Hogan and Franchot to look beyond the commission ruling because it had been nullified by the Court of Appeals.

But the court denied a request for attorneys’ fees because the case did not meet a bad-faith standard. Andrews called that standard a high bar.

“I’m not sure we should have a different standard than the Court of Appeals,” said Hogan. “I trust their judgment.”

Reese and her attorney, Andrew Jay Graham of Kramon & Graham P.A. in Baltimore, declined to comment on the matter following the board vote.

After the Court of Appeals’ decision, Reese was an active participant in revisions to the judicial discipline rules approved last month. In written comments to the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, Reese urged the committee to add a rule allowing the court to award attorneys’ fees to a judge who prevails, as she did.

“The economic burden placed on individual judges responding to and asserting a defense to allegations of sanctionable conduct is enormous and debilitating,” Reese wrote in November. “In the face of this expense, many judges are subjecting themselves to determinations of meritless sanctionable conduct.”

The revisions allow for the prevailing party in judicial discipline cases to recover costs for expenses like expert witnesses and examinations and reports, but it excludes attorneys’ fees.

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