The Baltimore Sun has recently reported an incident that took place in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. The whole thing arose in the context of a criminal proceeding being held before the Hon. Alfred Nance. It appears that a woman was causing a disruption in Judge Nance’s courtroom. She was calling out “I love you” and blowing kisses to her brother, a criminal defendant. This offended Judge Nance, who is known for strictly regulating the behavior (including attire) of those who appear in his court. Apparently, Judge Nance held the woman in contempt of court on the spot and sentenced her to ten days in the Baltimore City Detention Center. Luckily, a public defender who was in the courtroom intervened on the woman’s behalf and Judge Nance reversed his ruling.
The news articles make a big deal of the fact that Judge Nance has had judicial discipline issues in the past. I agree that the ten days was probably excessive punishment. The detention center, particularly in the summer time, is a miserable cesspool. But I don’t have a problem generally with judges insisting upon the proper respect and decorum while court is in session. Yelling out and waving is not acceptable in court or in any other formal setting. Even elementary school children know that if they want to talk, they need to sit quietly and raise their hands.
I have only briefly appeared before Judge Nance, and I have never seen him do anything I though was improper. Some of the commentators in the various news pieces have claimed that attorneys are reluctant to report improper conduct by judges because of fear of retaliation. I think one part of the news coverage tells the most important part of the story:
“Judge Nance had warned the audience not to speak out or act out, and I had warned Ms. Clevenger myself after she had spoken up in another courtroom and been admonished by the judge there for her behavior,” said Creston P. Smith.
Creston Smith was the attorney for the woman’s brother, who was on trial. I know Creston and have seen him in court on many occasions. I don’t think he would have said that if it wasn’t true. To me this sounds like the woman was being disruptive, after she had been warned twice not to, both by the judge and Mr. Smith.
I think courts should discipline people who engage in this kind of disruptive behavior. No wonder the news reports have been full of reports of witnesses and even a federal prosecutor being threatened in open court. A lack of respect for the legal system is endemic in Baltimore. Maybe ten days in jail is too excessive. I think that spending the afternoon in the court’s lockup may have been a proper punishment, and would have ensured no more disruptions in Judge Nance’s court that day. If Judge Nance had done that, I wonder if anyone would pay so much attention to this incident?