"So, looking at my background, the thought was I could qualify. I could get on the bench."

Having graduated as Dunbar's valedictorian in 1961, he went on to Morgan State where, again, he was student body president. After law school at Harvard, he returned to Baltimore to begin practicing law in 1969 at Piper and Marbury.

Along the way, he came to know some of East Baltimore's political power players, including Clarence Du Burns, the city's first black mayor, and Robert L. Douglass, a city councilman and state senator. Even as a college student, Bell met Paul Sarbanes, the future U.S. senator.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Sarbanes said, recalling a visit with the young Bell, who was living in a tiny rowhouse near one of Greenmount Cemetery's stone walls. "He was very smart and very committed."

Sarbanes says Douglass had asked him to meet this "very promising young man," though Bell says the future senator was going door to door on his first political campaign, for the Maryland House of Delegates. In any event, both agree that their discussion focused on Sarbanes' advice about attending his alma mater, Harvard Law, or another Boston school.

In his 38-year career as a judge, Bell has become known as a liberal. He long believed that the state's threshold for applying the death penalty was too low, and he supports same-sex marriage. He was in the minority of the Court of Appeals' 4-3 ruling in 2007 that upheld the state's ban on gay marriage. That the General Assembly repealed capital punishment this year, though, and that voters approved same-sex marriage last year might argue for him being a few steps ahead on both issues.

"The citizens have spoken," he said with a smile about same-sex marriage. "It is the civil rights issue of this particular century."

Court observers such as Byron Warnken, a criminal law professor at the University of Baltimore, say Bell tends to lean toward defendants' rights.

"In criminal justice cases, more than his predecessor [Murphy], he holds the government's feet a little more to the fire, and he is a little more supportive of a broader reading of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments," Warnken said. Those amendments include safeguards against unreasonable searches and the right to a fair trial.

Others say Bell's views provide a counterbalance to the power of the state. They say his hallmark is a focus on access to justice — whether through ensuring access to lawyers or creating problem-solving courts, such as those devoted to drug cases, and alternatives like mediation programs.

"He never lets the minutiae overwhelm his commitment to justice, and it's very easy to let justice die from a million small cuts," said Timothy Maloney, a former state delegate and member of the judicial nominating commission for appellate courts.

Maloney disputes the notion that Bell is a liberal judge. "It's not a political philosophy or ideology, it's a commitment to equal justice."

Bell is reluctant to categorize himself, or other judges, in a political manner.

"I don't really know about the liberal-conservative labels," he said. "I suspect, though, if you look at voting patterns, maybe there's something to it. I tend to be more on the progressive side.

"Whatever my personal views are, I'm stuck with the law. You have to apply the law as the law. When you take the oath, you give up the right to have your personal views guide you."

As the state's top judge, Bell's role goes beyond the courtroom — he administers a judicial system of nearly 4,000 employees and a $452 million budget. It is in that role that he has clashed with other officials such as Martin O'Malley.

As Baltimore mayor, O'Malley once said Bell's testimony that the judiciary had made "remarkable progress" in the city courts' backlogged cases made him want to "throw up." O'Malley put together a report on how to reform the courts, complete with stick figure drawings explaining how the criminal justice system should work — a move criticized as insulting to the state's top jurist.

Asked about that last week, O'Malley, now in his second term as governor, characterized it as "a disagreement about whether or not we needed the early disposition court" designed to help unclog the system. "So I made a real plain diagram," he said.

But O'Malley also called Bell "a great chief judge and just a tremendous leader of our judiciary."

Bell refused then and now to comment on the incident, or scuffles with other leaders, including State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller over matters such as legislative redistricting and where to add new judicial seats.