The noise of rustling papers and hurried footsteps at the Prince George's County Courthouse subside inside the second-floor office of Chief Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr. Adjacent to his desk, a Panasonic radio softly plays classical music in the background as Nichols signs search warrants from local detectives.
"This is how my day generally starts," said Nichols, chuckling.
Forty years on the bench, Nichols was serving his last week as the 19th Chief Judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit of Maryland. Nichols retired on June 23 — his 70th birthday — as required by the state law that sets a mandatory retirement age for judges.
The fifth-generation Laurel resident submitted the required 90-day notice to Gov. Larry Hogan in March, which named Judge Marjorie Clagett as his likely successor. If appointed, Clagett will become the first female Chief Judge since the county's circuit was created in 1867.
Throughout his career, Nichols has presided over about 70,000 cases, including 650 criminal and civil jury trails and two death penalty cases, and signed more than 18,445 search warrants, according to statistics provided by his office.
"A courthouse is a mirror of society," Nichols said. "You see the absolute best and the absolute worst. When you talk about inhumanity — if you're on jury duty, you see it and if you're on grand jury duty, you see more of it."
Nichols began under the tutelage of his father's close friend, Ernest Loveless Jr., the 12th Chief Judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit from 1976 to 1992. Following his father's death in 1964, Nichols, who was raised by his grandmother and aunt, said his relationship with Loveless became "as close to a father and son as you get."
Nichols attended law school at the University of Baltimore and from 1972 to 1973, clerked with then-Associate Judge Loveless at the circuit courthouse in Upper Marlboro. Nichols was admitted to the Maryland State Bar Association in 1973.
"Everybody in my family was in the real estate or building business. My family always wanted me to be like Judge Loveless," said Nichols, tearing up about his mentor, who died in 2007. "They thought this would be good for me [and] I literally got to take his place here. He was great. He had a vision. He understood people, more importantly, their feelings."
Beginning in 1977, Nichols was twice elected as a judge of the Orphans Court until 1985, when he became a judge for the District Court of Maryland. In 1992, he was appointed Circuit Court judge and elected to a 15-year term in November 1994 and, again, in 2012. His term ended in an off election year, but Nichols was reappointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley to serve until the election 2012.
Nichols was also a captain and senior reserve military judge in the U.S. Naval Reserve in the mid-1990s and a judge in the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals for a decade until 2007.
He is currently in his 10th year of teaching the theater and security decision making seminar at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Outside the courtroom, Nichols serves as the chairman of the Board of Directors of Dimensions HealthCare System and chairman of the Patuxent District of the Boy Scouts of America.
Like Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken Jr., Nichols said, he never took a sick day because the job was too important.
Final days in court
Two days away from retirement as Chief Judge, Nichols remained busy, reviewing documents in a workers' compensation civil suit between a former kindergarten teacher and the Prince George's County Board of Education. Packing boxes sat askew around the room as Pearl Laplaca, Nichols' executive administrative aide, entered through the open office door.
"They're ready for you," said Laplaca, who is also the former aide for Loveless.
"Thanks, Pearl," Nichols responded. The two have known one another for 30 years, working together over the past decade.
Nichols stood, grabbed his blue judge's robe from his coat rack and walked out the back door into a hallway to courtroom M1404. Fourteen empty juror seats sat on a platform on one side of the room as the plaintiff and defendant stood when Nichols entered.
Nichols briefly summarized the case and then allowed both parties to share their side of the issue.
The ability for Nichols to see both sides of a case took time and was learned from watching "really great lawyers do what they do," he said. Loveless was fair in the courtroom and friendly in the community, which Nichols said contributed to his own success. Judges are part of the solution, not the problem, he said.
"The phrase, 'I'll see you in court,' still has some meaning here. It has meaning because people come here as jurors or judges, take the oath and do what they think is right and fair. We're always open no matter what, even if the phone rings at 2 a.m."
Some cases take an emotional toll, particularly those involving child abuse or custody issues. But what is a judge's worst fear?
"Getting somebody hurt because of a decision you made or you put an innocent person in jail. That's frightening to me," Nichols said. When asked if he thought he's ever done those things, Nichols said he didn't believe so.
"There are 14 people serving life sentences that were mine that are still serving life sentences," he said. "I'm comfortable with all of that. This looks like a really soft job, where you sit in a chair and go, 'Yes,' or, 'No,' a lot of the time. But, it's really not that. There's an emotional aspect to it."
Similar to his judgment in the courtroom, Nichols was able to maintain a fair balance between his family and work, the latter of which he left at the courthouse door. His days off were spent shuttling his children to their extracurricular activities, like soccer, ice hockey and Girl Scouts.
Laurel has always been home, he added, and "I was supposed to look out for it. It had a lot of meaning that [my family] took care of home."
Nichols was and continues to be active in his hometown as a member of the Rotary Club of Laurel since 1974 and honorary life member of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department.
He also sat on the board of directors at St. Vincent Pallotti High School from 1988 to 1995.
In Upper Marlboro, Laplaca said Nichols also took good care of those at the courthouse, keeping up morale with his energy, kindness and generosity.
"I'll miss his excitement about work [and] his love of the law," Laplaca said. "That's him. That's his life. He loves what he does."
Sarah Haines, a courtroom clerk for Nichols, said she'll miss seeing his "little hop" around the office and his openness in the courtroom.
"He always gave somebody their day in court," Haines said. "Some people don't get a say with some judges; they just cut them off. He always lets them say what they have to say."
His work as Chief Judge may be finished, but Nichols said he'll continue working cases through January 2018 as a senior judge until a new Chief Judge takes his place. Nichols will remain a senior judge for about three months with opportunities to work throughout the Seventh Judicial Circuit, which includes all of Southern Maryland, as well as several district and circuit courts statewide.
"I got to be a part of something that made a difference," Nichols said. "That was good for me and you can't help but be proud of that when it all works out."