Washington County Circuit Judge reprimanded for setting false trial date

As part of a negotiated settlement, a reprimand and a stipulation of facts were made public

November 01, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ |
  • McDowell

A state commission has reprimanded Washington County Circuit Judge John H. McDowell for intentionally misleading attorneys into thinking they had less than 24 hours to prepare for a trial as motivation to settle their case.

As Washington County's administrative judge, McDowell on Feb. 15 set a jury trial for the next day in a civil case, despite knowing that it wouldn't happen, according to a state Commission on Judicial Disabilities' written reprimand.

He ordered a clerk to publish and post a docket sheet, even though he "knew that the case would not be heard by a jury on February 16, 2011, and that no jurors were to be called in for the case," the reprimand said.

The commission issued a private reprimand on Oct. 24. As part of a negotiated settlement, a reprimand and a stipulation of facts were made public.

McDowell, 59, became the local administrative judge in 2008, but stepped down this year. Judge M. Kenneth Long Jr. took over at the end of June.

McDowell, who remains a Circuit Court judge, didn't return a message left at his courthouse office on Tuesday, but his thoughts on the matter are part of the stipulation of facts.

During a Sept. 6 deposition, McDowell told the commission he had "tunnel vision" and "myopia" about trying to move along a difficult matter within deadlines the state sets to complete cases.

"I was just seeing what I needed to do in order to continue to have the reputation that Washington County does for efficiency," he said.

In retrospect, McDowell said he regretted what he did.

"Had I known that my actions would have affected people, the attorneys — I put them under stress that they didn't need to be put under. I probably didn't listen to them as I should have ...," he said in the stipulation of facts.

A better choice, would have been to let the parties file a motion to enforce a settlement agreement, he said.

In the civil case, David and Gail Zickafoose sued Maxxam Homes LLC and Washco Developments Inc. over a house the Zickafooses purchased in the Black Rock Estates development near Hagerstown in 2004.

The Zickafooses alleged construction deficiencies and structural problems with their house and sought hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

After several months, it appeared the two sides had settled.

But, in February, when attorneys still hadn't filed a "written line of dismissal," formally indicating that the case was complete, McDowell ordered that a trial be scheduled and posted.

However, he "directed the assignment clerk to advise the jury clerk that no jurors were to be called in but indicated to the assignment clerk that the attorneys were not to be told that the posted docket was false," the stipulation of facts said.

The commission ruled that McDowell's actions violated two Maryland Rules of Judicial Conduct related to "compliance with the law" and "promoting confidence in the judiciary."

The commission deferred consideration on whether McDowell violated six other rules of judicial conduct, according to the reprimand.

According to the commission, both Travis W. Poole, the Zickafooses' attorney, and Scott L. Schubel, the defendants' attorney, weren't ready for a trial on short notice and complained about what McDowell did.

Schubel said Tuesday he was satisfied with the commission's action and considers the matter closed. Poole declined to comment.

Court records show the Zickafooses and the defendants agreed to a settlement in the case in May.

According to the stipulation of facts, McDowell said: "I was attempting to move this case that was potentially very complicated that the attorneys were having a difficult time with because one of the clients was backing out or reneging on the deal ...."

McDowell said he attempted to "hold their feet to the fire to try to get the case settled by having it acknowledged the next day. And I thought that this was the best way to handle it."

He said he resigned as administrative judge "for the sole purpose of making sure that what I did in this case and in the other case that was under investigation never happens again ...."

There's no mention of another investigation involving McDowell in the stipulation of facts or the reprimand.

McDowell became a circuit judge in 1993 after John Corderman retired. He was elected in 1995 to a 15-year term, then won re-election last year.

The last previous action listed on the commission's website also involved a Washington County Circuit Court judge.

In January, the commission issued a reprimand to Judge W. Kennedy Boone III in connection with his 2009 arrest on a charge of driving while intoxicated after a car accident.

Boone previously was reprimanded for comments he made about women in court in 2007.

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