Chief judge of Maryland Court of Appeals retiring

Robert M. Bell, Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, in his courtroom, where he and the other judges heard a case before their court. He will be retiring in July.
Robert M. Bell, Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, in his courtroom, where he and the other judges heard a case before their court. He will be retiring in July. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

Maryland's highest-ranking judge, Robert M. Bell, likes that his courthouse is dedicated to his predecessor, pointing out that the letters etching Robert C. Murphy's name on the building's exterior are filled in gold paint to make sure even nighttime drivers can see it.

As Bell approaches retirement, mandatory when he turns 70 in July, he scoffs at the notion that his name might someday grace a building as well.


But then, his name is forever etched in legal history by virtue of the Supreme Court case Bell v. Maryland.

As a 16-year-old, Bell was arrested at a 1960 sit-in at a Baltimore restaurant that served whites only, becoming the lead plaintiff in a case that ultimately helped push the country toward desegregation.


The case has been something of a talisman in his life, re-emerging on occasion even after it was settled. As a law student at Harvard University, Bell was taught his own case in a seminar. And later, as he rose through Maryland's judiciary, he would be seated on the same benches as lawyers who had argued for the state and against him — including a one-time deputy attorney general named Robert C. Murphy.

That the former plaintiff would replace a former adversary as chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals is one of the more remarkable arcs in the state's legal history.

"It's really a tableau; it really encapsulates what happened in America in the last 40 years," said William L. Reynolds, a University of Maryland law professor who has written a legal history of the case.

Reynolds will be among the speakers this week at a symposium devoted to Bell's career, following a gala dinner hosted by the Maryland State Bar Association. It is an opportunity for colleagues and admirers to celebrate what Bell calls his "ordinary life" — an opinion from which some would, respectfully, dissent.


Bell, who once opposed an effort to extend the mandatory retirement ages for judges, says he's ready to hand off the gavel.

"As time passes, you need the infusion of new energy and new visions and new ideas," said Bell, the first African-American to lead the Court of Appeals. "You're more likely to get that with new blood."

In his office on the top floor of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse downtown, Bell is surrounded by his own history. Mitchell helped lead the fight for landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which rendered moot the issues raised in Bell v. Maryland, by, among other things, banning segregation in public places. And Mitchell was married to Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the first black woman to practice law in Maryland and part of the young Bell's defense team.

Bell's office features several portraits of another lawyer who worked on the case: Baltimore native and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Bell himself presents something of a study in contrasts. He is a ubiquitous public speaker, yet personally rather shy — "an extroverted introvert," as one friend puts it. The first impression many get of him, his sunny, approachable affability, remains even in the face of some fierce battles over the years against other state officials.

And then, inescapably, there is his flair for fashion, hidden beneath his courtroom robes: the little zodiac medallion and skinny suits he wore in the 1970s and '80s, the bow ties, pocket squares, berets and man purses that he has lately favored.

"The only thing I cannot subscribe to follow him in is clothes," jokes fellow Appeals Court Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr., "from his socks that are every color of the rainbow and his bow ties, and the — I'm not sure what they are called — the kerchiefs in the jacket pocket."

Bell tends to wear the eternally bemused expression of someone who has seen it all while serving on each of the four state courts — district, circuit, special appeals and appeals — and simply living his life.

He is the son of a sharecropper who moved her family to Baltimore when Bell was a toddler. His voice softens in recalling a childhood in East Baltimore and an education at Dunbar High School, where he was student body president — running on a ticket with his buddy and vice president, the late Reginald F. Lewis, who became one of the richest Americans as CEO of the Beatrice food conglomerate.

"He was an entrepreneur even then," Bell said, remembering how Lewis would get them jobs pulling floats in the city's Thanksgiving Day parades and hawking sodas at Memorial Stadium.

Bell tends to steer conversations away from himself, even attributing his own rise through Maryland's judicial ranks to others. Indeed, he appears to have been groomed by those who in the 1970s were eager to open up Maryland's judgeships beyond white male applicants.

"Things always happen not so much because of what I do but because of what others do," Bell said. "There was ... a perceived need for diversification on the bench. There was this perception that you don't have anyone on the scene who would pass muster and who would be deemed qualified.

"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.

Miller says Bell was just being protective of the court system. Miller said Bell "is entitled to retire being honored for a fine career" and noted that the Senate invited him onto the floor this session to shower him with praise.

For his part, Bell says a bit of conflict is built into a government comprising three equal branches of government. "It's not supposed to be smooth sailing all the time."

If Bell has had some political battles, he is noted for running a civil courtroom.

"His leadership style is very inclusive," said retired Court of Appeals Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. "Anybody who had something to say had the opportunity to say it."

That goes for those who disagree with him as well, colleagues and attorneys say.

"We have an extremely collegial court, due to him in no small part," said Harrell, considered a conservative on the opposite end of the spectrum from Bell. "I know the chief never punishes anybody for disagreeing with [his opinions]."

Bell often will break up tense exchanges with humor, a wide-eyed, "you're-kidding-me" look and what Harrell calls "a full-blown laugh that can probably be heard on the Eastern Shore."

Longtime friend William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., a garrulous defense attorney, said he initially underestimated the quieter Bell, who started his career during the politically tumultuous 1970s by taking "the corporate option" at Piper.

But when Bell was named to the District Court in 1975, "he flowered," said Murphy, who himself served three years as a Baltimore circuit judge. "This was such a revelation to all of us. There's something inherently trustworthy about the man. He wears power so well."

Bell's closest friends date back decades, to childhood even. They're looking forward to seeing more of their workaholic friend.

"When he became chief judge, our whole world fell apart," said retired Court of Special Appeals Judge Arrie W. Davis. Or, rather, the threesome, with the late federal judge John R. Hargrove Sr., that lunched at Horn & Horn in downtown Baltimore almost every day from 1988 to 1996. "With the exception of Thursday, because that's when Hargrove had a bench meeting."

Bell's friends are his family these days, along with his brother, Joe, a retired cabdriver; his parents and an older brother are deceased. Bell, who lives in a downtown condominium, never married — but not by design, he says.

"It just happened," Bell said. "I don't know, maybe it's just because I'm a strange bird. I'm used to myself."

Retirement should give him more time for his hobby, photography, and his collections — the fine old watches that he seeks out on eBay, and the fountain pens that he uses, and has been known to produce when the officials he swears in have to sign the official registry.

Perhaps mischievously, he notes that at O'Malley's last ceremony, the governor complained that the fountain pen wouldn't work. Bell's ruling: "It worked."

In preparation for retirement, he is loading up his iPad with books. And, perhaps, readying to put his pen to paper, turning his attention away from points of law to points of a life.

"I used to give Du Burns the devil all the time about not writing a book," he said. "I really might start thinking about that."

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.