Retired Howard Circuit Court Judge J. Thomas Nissel, who once assigned written essays as punishment to young, first-offense speeders, died of dementia complications May 1 at Copper Ridge in Sykesville. The former Ellicott City resident was 87.
Born in Baltimore and raised on Bentalou Street, he was the son of John Nissel, a postal inspector, and his wife, Helen Sullivan.
A 1948 graduate of Loyola High School, he obtained a bachelor’s degree at what is now Loyola University Maryland. He was a University of Maryland School of Law graduate in 1955 and was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1955.
He served in the Maryland National Guard from 1950 to 1953.
Judge Nissel met his future wife, Irene M. Meyer, on a blind dinner date.
“My father instantly fell for my mother because she was a redhead. He loved redheads,” said his daughter, Jennifer Crisp of Pasadena.
Early in his career Judge Nissel worked as a special attorney handling condemnation cases for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office.
“My father was a straight shooter. He was a letter-of-the-law kind of person and did not deviate from that too much,” said his son, John “Jack” Nissel, a Middletown resident. “He was very fair. He took his decisions to heart.
“At home, he was first and foremost a dad,” his son said. “As children, we were never allowed to ride bicycles. It was a tough pill to swallow when all your buddies had bikes, but he had been involved in cases where kids had been hit by trucks. In hindsight, I understand his position.”
In 1963 he and his family moved to Howard County when he established a law practice. He filled a vacancy as Howard County state’s attorney. In 1967 he was appointed council to the county commissioners and served in that job for a year.
He was named to the bench in the old People’s Court in 1968. In a reorganization of the judicial system, he was appointed the first judge in the District Court of Maryland for Howard County in July 1971.
A 1972 Baltimore Sun article said Judge Nissel narrowly missed being struck by a bullet fired by a Patuxent Institution guard at a prisoner who fled the Howard County Court House.
The judge was known for his sentences for young, first-time minor traffic violators. In the course of a year, he assigned about 100 essays — of 300 to 500 words — to be written by defendants to whom he had give probation before judgment. If the essays came back too brief, he returned them to the young drivers and required them to be rewritten to his specifications.
“A 19-year-old Columbia youth observed that his essay topic on the dangers of speeding gave him ‘the chance to realize what a fool I have been for not obeying the speed limit at all times,’ ” a 1976 article in The Baltimore Sun reported.
Gov. Harry Hughes named Judge Nissel to the Circuit Court in 1980. He remained on the bench until late 1990, when he retired.
He was known for decorum and proper dress in his courtroom. “The judge kept a suit coat handy and required slovenly dressed men to wear it before testifying,” said The Sun in a 1990 article.
“He approached the law with compassion, seriousness and deliberation, “ said retired District Court Chief Judge James N. Vaughan. “He had a great knowledge of law and was our first administrative judge for District 10, Howard and Carroll counties. He, along with Judge Robert Sweeney, set the tone for the District Court.”
Among his more notable cases, Judge Nissel presided over the 1981 trial of Dean Oliver, who along with an accomplice had been accused of the the robbery, attempted rape, torture, stabbing and strangulation of a 37-year-old Ellicott City woman. Mr. Oliver was convicted and received a life sentence.
Family members said Judge Nissel enjoyed flying as a passenger. Once, when a State Police helicopter was being tested, he got a ride over Howard County and directed the crew to fly over his house. He discovered it needed a new roof and had repairs made. He also took glider rides.
A woodworker, he made dollhouses for his daughters and granddaughters and also built model ships and airplanes.
He and his wife traveled widely. They visited his brother, a Jesuit missionary priest, in Japan and other places in Asia.
“My father loved to go camping. We had a big Ford Econoline van and we would pack that thing and head off to Shad Landing State Park and Swallow Falls in Garrett County. He lived to be with his family,” said his son John.
In addition to his daughter and son, survivors include another son, James Nissel of Mendham, N.J.; three other daughters, Mary Nissel of Frederick, Jane Lewis of Gambrills, and Anne Tindall of Atlanta, Ga.; 12 grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren. His wife of 53 years died in 2010.
A Mass of Christian burial was held Saturday at the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City, where he had been a member.