Judge Robert C. Wilcox of Davidsonville retired in 2010, but after two months vacationing in Florida, he traded back the beach for the bench.
"I love the law, and I like what I do," said Wilcox, 70, a retired judge of the Maryland District Court in Annapolis, where he continues to try cases two days a week. "When you do what you like, it's not work."
Wilcox belongs to a group the Maryland court system refers to as retired/recalled judges. Recalled judges work part time, not to exceed 82 days per year. They are paid per diem and receive no additional benefits from the state. According to the Maryland Judiciary's public affairs office, approximately 150 retired judges serve throughout the system.
"All rise," the bailiff called out on a recent morning. A courtroom of fewer than 20 people rose as Wilcox took the bench. He granted postponement requests, issued bench warrants for those who failed to appear in court and heard cases involving defendants accused of driving under the influence.
Wilcox, a New York native, grew up in what he called a "tough neighborhood" in the Bronx. He said he joined the U.S. Air Force in 1961 and served as a radar operator in Germany, Greece and North Africa during the Vietnam War. While overseas in the military, he took college classes through the University of Maryland.
"I wish that as a judge, I could order military service." Wilcox said. He credits his military experience for changing his life and building his confidence, which prepared him for his career.
Wilcox left the military in 1964 and moved to Maryland to complete college. He initially wanted to become a geologist, but made the financial decision to become a lawyer.
"My sole purpose was to make money." he said.
On a recent day, a lengthy case involving a child custody dispute caused him to have to work straight through lunch, and after a short recess, court was in session again. He issued a 60-day jail sentence to a defendant who had multiple citations related to driving without a valid driver's license.
Wilcox empathized with another defendant, on trial for a driving-under-the-influence offense, who acknowledged he has a drinking problem.
"You can't do it by yourself," Wilcox told the defendant, and ordered him to get treatment.
Early in his career, Wilcox maintained a private practice, but it was his work as a zoning hearing officer from 1986 to 1997 that captivated him. In this position, his duties were comparable to those of a judge. He made headlines when he denied a Washington Redskins' request to relocate the team stadium to Laurel.
Wilcox became an associate judge for the Anne Arundel County District Court in March 1997.
Twice widowed, he lives with his cat, Boomer, short for "baby boomer." Wilcox also has a land development business where he works part time, and he takes summers off from the bench.
Wilcox said he is human and has tough days, but as a general rule, he treats others the way he likes to be treated.
"This is an important job that should be taken seriously, but I don't take myself too seriously," he said.
Things have changed since he entered the field. He said there are resources in place in the Maryland judicial system that did not exist 25 years ago. "There is a program for almost everything," Wilcox said, including drug and alcohol treatment, anger management and other programs.
He said he stresses treatment in lieu of imprisonment whenever possible. Treatment is a good option, he said, but when it doesn't work, jail is the alternative.
Wilcox is a stickler for appropriate dress, as well as courtroom decorum and civility. And honesty. "The truth. The truth. The truth," he said. "The truth shall set you free."
Lisa Miller, executive aide to the administrative judge, said retired judges play an important role in the system. In Maryland, judges are appointed by the governor for 10-year terms and are required to retire at age 70.
"It's like a school, the children don't go away because the teacher is sick. We have to fill the courtroom one way or another," Miller said of the caseload.
Miller said that she enjoys working with Wilcox and that the sentiment is shared throughout the building.
"He is very even-tempered, even-keeled … congenial and intelligent," Miller said. "You can tell he enjoys his work. … He takes the times to get to know the clerks and bailiffs by name."
Lee Wheeler, a bailiff, agreed. "Judge Wilcox is a fantastic guy. He is one of the best judges here," said Wheeler, a retired Maryland state trooper of 30 years.
Assistant Public Defender Caroline Spies said that having retired judges come back to the bench helps manage the case load. "They are a necessity," she said.
Spies also said that attorneys value having judges they are familiar with on the bench, as it helps them decide how to frame their arguments. Because Wilcox regularly hears cases, Spies says, she has an idea of his pet peeves.
"Judge Wilcox is one of the frequent judges, so we have an idea of what he is like," Spies said. "He is very tough on theft, especially employee theft."
Wilcox said the most rewarding part of his job is the few times that reformed past defendants come back into his courtroom to let him know that they have changed their life, either through a treatment program or time in jail. "There is no greater feeling," he said.
He said that he'll continue to take cases as long as his health allows.
"I'll never retire," he said. Then he pointed to his head. "Retirement is in here."