Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr., a retired Howard County circuit judge whose legal career spanned nearly four decades, died Feb. 24 of heart failure while vacationing in Hilton Head, S.C.
The longtime Ellicott City resident was 86.
"Judge Sybert looked like a judge and a jurist," said Howard County Circuit Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, a longtime friend.
"He was gentlemanly, very refined and dignified," said Judge Gelfman. "He was a soft-spoken man and people felt they could try their cases before him. He had a reputation of being very kind and able to listen."
"Neal was a good natural lawyer with a lot of common sense," said retired Howard County Circuit Judge Louis A. Becker III, who had been a law partner of Judge Sybert's. "He was a practical lawyer who handled land development, zoning and business cases."
Judge Sybert was born into a legal and political family. His father, C. Ferdinand Sybert, was a Howard County state's attorney, speaker of the House of Delegates, and served four years in the state Senate. He was elected Maryland attorney general in 1950, and from 1961 until he retired in 1965, was been a member of the state Court of Appeals. For the next nine years, he practiced law with his son at Sybert & Sybert & Nippard.
Judge Sybert's mother, Elizabeth Johnson Sybert, was a homemaker.
He was born and raised in Elkridge, and after graduating in 1945 from Loyola High School, he earned a bachelor's degree in 1949 from what is now Loyola University Maryland.
He served in the Army from 1950 to 1953 and then enrolled at the University of Maryland School of Law, where he earned a degree in 1956. He was admitted to the Maryland bar that year.
From 1958 to 1962, he was assistant state's attorney for Howard County, and served as state's attorney for the county from 1962 to 1966. He was senior partner at Sybert & Sybert and Nippard from 1966 to 1983.
"We used to call him the 'Prince of Elkridge' because he had a lot of business from the town," Judge Becker recalled with a laugh. "He had been a good litigator, was good on his feet, and very personable."
Judge Sybert was senior partner at Sybert and Adams from 1983 to 1987, when Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed him to the Howard County Circuit Court bench.
"I'm one of the last of a dying breed, the general practitioner," he told The Evening Sun at the time. "I try to handle a smattering of everything, hit all the fields."
He brought a well-rounded legal background to his role as judge because he had worked both as a prosecutor and defense attorney on criminal cases and had experience in family law and zoning and property cases.
"I'm not going to be a pro-prosecutor or pro-defense. I've been on both sides. I'm just going to make the best decision I can for each case, " he told The Evening Sun.
As a judge, he was known for giving attorneys latitude when laying out their cases and maintaining a proper decorum in his courtroom.
"He had a wonderful judicial demeanor, and he was very knowledgeable because he had been state's attorney," said Judge Becker.
Judge Sybert told The Evening Sun that whether people in his court were found guilty or innocent, he wanted them to feel as though they "had their day in court."
At the time of his retirement in 1995, The Baltimore Sun noted that during his career, he had presided over several significant cases.
In October 1994, he dismissed most of the prosecutor's evidence against a man who was being tried on drug charges.
"His ruling lambasted Howard County police detectives , saying they arrested the man simply because they saw 'a suspicious look in his eye,' " reported The Sun.
In 1992, he threw out the Howard County Council's election redistricting plan of 1991 on procedural grounds, leading to months of "aggravated partisan debate on the council, which took months to resolve," reported The Sun.
"The decision by Circuit Court [Judge] Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. deals a sharp blow to council Democrats, who used their 3 to 2 majority to redraw district boundaries for the 1994 elections that are favorable to the Democrats," said The Washington Post at the time.
He was not fond of divorce and custody cases.
"I hate those," Judge Sybert told The Sun. "To me [the parents] are both pulling at the kids."
To arrive at a fitting resolution, he said, he spoke privately with the children and their parents.
When he announced his retirement from the bench, Judge Sybert said, "I want to slow down a little bit and relax a little bit."
He told The Sun he had one regret in life, and that was that his father had not lived to see him become a judge.
"I really try to emulate him and follow in his footsteps," he told The Sun.
He was a longtime member of the Howard County Bar Association and served as its president from 1967 to 1968.
For the last eight years, Judge Sybert and his wife, the former Patricia Ellen Terry, lived at Hearthstone at Village Crest in Ellicott City.
"We have been Ellicott City residents for 62 years," said Mrs. Sybert.
Judge Sybert enjoyed playing bridge and gardening. He was a golfer and a member of Turf Valley Country Club, Hobbit's Glen Golf Club and Cattail Creek Country Club.
He was a communicant of St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church, 3755 St. Paul St., Ellicott City, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at noon Saturday.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by three sons, William N. Sybert of Red Lion, Pa., David T. Sybert of Ellicott City and Robert A. Sybert of Catonsville; three daughters, Joan E. S. Jett of Lansdowne, Sally Annamarie Gessner of Pasadena and Mary Ellen Rogers of Glenwood; a brother, George Sybert Sr. of Baltimore; a sister, Suzanne M. Bedon of Guilford; 13 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.