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In re Reese

Court of Appeals of Maryland

July 31, 2018

IN THE MATTER OF THE HONORABLE MARY C. REESE, JUDGE OF THE DISTRICT COURT OF MARYLAND FOR HOWARD COUNTY, TENTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT

          Argued: March 6, 2018

          Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities Case No. CJD 2015-132, CJD 2015-133 and CJD 2015-134

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, JJ.

          OPINION

          HOTTEN, J.

         In this judicial disabilities case, we examine the decision of the Commission on Judicial Disabilities ("the Commission"), which determined that the Honorable Mary C. Reese ("Judge Reese") committed sanctionable conduct during the course of presiding over a peace order hearing. Maryland Rule 18-401 defines "sanctionable conduct" as "misconduct while in office, the persistent failure by a judge to perform the duties of the judge's office, or conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice." Additionally, Maryland Rule 18-401 provides that "[a] judge's violation of any of the provisions of the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct promulgated by Title 18, Chapter 100 may constitute sanctionable conduct."

         In August 2014 and February 2015, Judge Reese presided over two hearings at which the petitioners sought a protective order and a peace order, respectively. Judge Reese's conduct during these hearings formed the basis for complaints of judicial misconduct. Investigative Counsel charged Judge Reese with violating multiple rules of judicial conduct. Following an evidentiary hearing, the Commission concluded that Judge Reese committed sanctionable conduct in the February 2015 peace order hearing and recommended to this Court that she attend training. Judge Reese filed exceptions. On March 6, 2018, we heard oral argument and, on March 22, 2018, issued a per curiam order, disagreeing with the Commission's conclusion and dismissing the matter with prejudice. We were not persuaded that the judge's exercise of judicial discretion constituted sanctionable conduct or violated Rule 18-101.1 or 18-102.5(a). We shall now explain why.

         BACKGROUND

         Judge Reese has served as an Associate Judge of the District Court of Maryland, District Ten, which includes both Howard and Carroll counties, since 2006. On July 31, 2015, the Women's Law Center of Maryland ("the Women's Law Center") filed a complaint against Judge Reese with the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities ("the Commission"). The Women's Law Center is a statewide non-profit organization that has operated the Protective Order Representation and Advocacy Project, a program providing direct legal services for victims of domestic violence, for over twenty years.[1]The crux of the Women's Law Center complaint involves Judge Reese's conduct overseeing protective and peace orders, and cites three cases for reference: Lauren M. Lewis v. Richelieu W. James (Case No. 1002SP004962014), Patricia Stein v. Benton Stephen Lecuyer (Case No.1002SP001402015), and Biden v. Kramer (Case No. 1002SP005512014)[2]. In addition to the Women's Law Center complaint, two of the individuals referenced therein, Lauren M. Lewis and Patricia Stein, also filed complaints against Judge Reese.[3] Although the complete transcripts for the Lewis and Stein matters were accepted into evidence as joint exhibits before the Commission, the Lewis matter was dismissed by the Commission for insufficient evidence.

         Patricia Stein v. Benton Stephen Lecuyer

         On February 18, 2015, Judge Reese presided over the matter of Patricia Stein v. Benton Stephen Lecuyer, Case No. 1002SP001402015. Patricia Stein filed a Petition for Peace Order on behalf of her seventeen-year-old granddaughter, Tricia Hiltz. In presenting an ex parte petition for a peace order under Md. Code (Repl. Vol. 2013), § 3-1504 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings, [4] ("Cts. & Jud. Proc."), Ms. Stein alleged that a former boyfriend, Mr. Lecuyer, attacked her granddaughter. The relationship between Ms. Hiltz and Mr. Lecuyer ended two weeks before Mr. Lecuyer tracked her by phone to a friend's home. Upon discovering Ms. Hiltz inside the home, Mr. Lecuyer assaulted her and her friend, resulting in visible bruising around Ms. Hiltz's eyes. During the hearing, Ms. Hiltz indicated that she blocked Mr. Lecuyer from her phone, and she had not spoken to him since the incident. The transcript of Judge's Reese's examination of Ms. Hiltz, reflected the following:

Q What do you want to tell me, ma'am?
A Well, everything she said is true.
MS. STEIN: Well, what do you got to -- I mean --
BY THE COURT:
Q Has this ever happened before?
A No.
Q Okay. Did you have any conversation with him that day?
A No. I blocked him from my phone. His phone number is blocked.
THE COURT: Okay. All right. It looks to me like she's taking care (sic) of it. Okay?
MS. STEIN: Mm-hmm.
THE COURT: I have to be able to find two things. One, is that one of the nine statutory forms of abuse have occurred. And, number two, he's likely to commit the purported act against her in the future.
And I don't have any indication from his past behavior that anything like this is likely to occur again in the future. So I'm not going to enter the order today. If anything else were to occur, you can go to the commissioner's office if the court is not open. Or you can come back to the courthouse to file for relief. Okay?
MS. STEIN: Okay.

         As the record reflects, Judge Reese found insufficient evidence that the abuse was likely to occur in the future, but advised that if another incident occurred, Ms. Stein and Ms. Hiltz could return to the court to seek relief. An appeal of the denial of the peace order was filed in the Circuit Court for Carroll County, but later dismissed after the circuit court determined that Ms. Hiltz was not eligible for a peace order.

         Proceedings before the Commission on Judicial Disabilities

         Based on the complaints filed, the Commission filed a Statement of Charges on April 16, 2017.

         In an attempt to describe the nature of the sanctionable conduct, the charges reflected the following:

Judge Reese engaged in behavior that failed to promote public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartially of the judiciary. Judge Reese was not performing her duties impartially and fairly and was manifesting bias or prejudice regarding the litigants appearing before her. In the Lecuyer case, Judge Reese afforded Petitioner a mere four (4) minute hearing before denying her requested relief after a few short inquiries, both undermining public confidence in the judiciary and denying her the right to be heard.
Judge Reese's behavior provides evidence that [she] engaged in conduct that was prejudicial to the proper administration of justice in Maryland Courts[.]

         As a result, Judge Reese was charged with violating the following rules of the Maryland Code of the Judicial Conduct:

Rule 18-101.1 (formerly Rule 1.1) COMPLIANCE WITH THE LAW
A judge shall comply with the law, including this Code of Judicial Conduct.
Rule 18-101.2 (formerly Rule 1.2) PROMOTING CONFIDENCE IN THE JUDICIARY
(a) Promoting Public Confidence. A judge shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary.
(b) Avoiding Perception of Impropriety. A judge shall avoid conduct that would create in reasonable minds a perception of impropriety.
Rule 18-102.2 (formerly Rule 2.2) IMPARTIALITY AND FAIRNESS
(a) A judge shall uphold and apply the law and shall perform all duties of judicial office impartially and fairly.
(b) A judge may make reasonable efforts, consistent with the Maryland Rules and other law, to facilitate the ability of all litigants, including self-represented litigants, to be fairly heard.
Rule 18-102.3 (formerly Rule 2.3) BIAS, PREJUDICE, AND HARASSMENT
(a) A judge shall perform the duties of judicial office, including administrative duties, without bias or prejudice.
Rule 18-102.5 (formerly Rule 2.5) COMPETENCE, DILIGENCE, AND COOPERATION
(a) A judge shall perform judicial and administrative duties competently, diligently, promptly, and without favoritism or nepotism.
Rule 18-100.4 (formerly C-101, C-102, and C-103) PREAMBLE
(a) Importance of Independent, Fair, Competent, Impartial Judiciary.
An independent, fair, competent, and impartial judiciary composed of men and women of integrity who will interpret and apply the law that governs our society is indispensable to our system of justice. Thus, the judiciary plays a central role in preserving the principles of justice and the rule of law. Inherent in all the Rules contained in this Code are the precepts that judges, individually and collectively, must respect and honor the judicial office as a public trust and strive to maintain and enhance confidence in the legal system.
(b) Dignity of Judicial Office. Judges should maintain the dignity of judicial office at all times, and avoid both impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in their professional and personal lives. They should aspire at all times to conduct that ensures the greatest possible public confidence in their independence, impartiality, integrity, and competence.
(c) Function of Code of Judicial Conduct. This Code of Judicial Conduct establishes standards for the ethical conduct of judges and judicial candidates. It is not intended as an exhaustive guide for the conduct of judges and judicial candidates, who are governed in their judicial and personal conduct by general ethical standards as well as by this Code. This Code is intended, however, to provide guidance and assist judges in maintaining the highest standards of judicial and personal conduct, and to provide a basis for regulating their conduct through disciplinary agencies.

         On May 25, 2017, Judge Reese, through counsel, filed an Answer to the Commission's charges.

         On November 11, 2017, the Commission conducted a hearing. Investigative Counsel called no witnesses to testify, but played an audio recording of the proceedings in Patricia Stein v. Benton Stephen Lecuyer, Case No. 1002SP001402015. Judge Reese called four character witnesses: Lorraine Lawrence Whittaker, Esquire, a private attorney specializing in family law, Carol Hanson, Esquire, the District Public Defender for Howard and Carroll counties, Judge Joseph Murphy, and Judge James N. Vaughan. Judge Reese also testified on her own behalf.

         Ms. Whittaker testified that she has appeared before Judge Reese for the last nine years as counsel in both criminal and civil cases, including protective order matters. In her experience appearing before Judge Reese, Ms. Whittaker believed that Judge Reese was fair and unbiased. Ms. Hanson has known Judge Reese for twenty years in a professional capacity. Ms. Hanson testified that she has appeared before Judge Reese as counsel in domestic violence matters on multiple occasions. Although Ms. Hanson did not always agree with Judge Reese's decisions, Ms. Hanson opined that Judge Reese consistently treated litigants and attorneys with fairness and respect.

         Judge Reese testified that before she became a judge, she served as an Assistant State's Attorney for Howard County and as a private defense attorney for Reese & Carney, a private law firm. Judge Reese testified that on a weekly basis, she presided over traffic cases, landlord-tenant cases, and one day a week, domestic violence cases, including peace orders and protective orders. Judge Reese also singularly presided over mental health cases. She understood that in her capacity as a judge, she was tasked to listen to the individuals that come before her, the facts presented, and apply those facts to the law. Judge Reese indicated that she was aware of what the relevant peace order statute, Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-1504, requires. She testified that she also is familiar with the Maryland Judge's Domestic Violence Manual, October 2009 Edition, and kept a copy at the bench. Judge Reese was not ...


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