Avrum Rifman, ex-judge, magistrate, dies at 85


Avrum K. Rifman, a former Baltimore Municipal Court judge and police station magistrate, died yesterday at the age of 85. He had been hospitalized with pneumonia.

Services will be at 3 p.m. today at the Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral home, 6010 Reisterstown Road.

Noted as a philosopher who enjoyed spinning tales and quoting such diverse literary figures as Shakespeare, Milton and Mencken, Mr. Rifman retired at the mandatory age of 70 as a juvenile court master.

Born in Baltimore and a resident of Wabash Avenue for more than 40 years, Mr. Rifman was a 1922 City College graduate. He received his law degree with honors from the University of Maryland in 1926.

In the first administration of Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin, he was appointed as an assistant city solicitor in 1943 and was chief of the office's trial division from 1943 to 1945.

As governor in 1951, Mr. McKeldin gave Mr. Rifman to his first judiciary job with a two-year appointment as magistrate at the city's Southern District police station.

There, facing a constant flow of people in distress, he was apt to offer Shakespearean references or display his wit in dispensing justice -- often to the delight of reporters.

Presiding over the case of a Korean War veteran who returned to find his wife with a lover and new child, he directed a courtroom solution to the lovers triangle by telling the woman, "Fate lies in your hands, for you must make a choice." She chose her husband.

On occasion, he would even dispense a few dollars to help a down-and-out defendant -- such as the accountant from Gettysburg, Pa., charged with public drunkenness, telling a tale of personal misfortune and begging for a "decent break."

Mr. Rifman arranged for the probation department to help the man find work and gave him $5.

"I can't believe it; it's a miracle," the man said." Magistrate Rifman replied, "Miracles happen every day."

In 1968, Mr. Rifman was appointed by Gov. Spiro T. Agnew to the old Municipal Court. He was bumped from the bench, however, in an unsuccessful bid for a full 10-year term in the 1970 elections.

But within months, Mr. Rifman was called back to assist the city court system as a master hearing juvenile cases. A federal court decision forced Baltimore to treat 16- and 17-year-old criminal defendants as juveniles, adding thousands of cases a year to the Juvenile Court docket.

When Mr. Rifman stepped down in 1975, at the mandatory retirement age of 70, he issued a farewell letter to his superiors, a 10-page statement criticizing the Juvenile Court system as "cumbersome, unwieldy, costly and inefficient," and calling for reforms that would give greater power to court masters.

Mr. Rifman also served through much of the 1970s as a member of the city Jail Board, to which he was appointed by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

Off the bench, he remained outspoken about problems he perceived in the criminal justice system, criticizing a "lack of concern" for witnesses in criminal cases who were forced to make repeated trips to court because of frequent trial postponements.

He suggested legislation providing for monetary compensation for the witnesses and permitted the use of tape-recorded testimony to eliminate the need for repeated court appearances.

"A prompt trial," he said, "is the highest vindication of public justice. This applies equally to those justly accused or unjustly accused."

He is survived by his wife of 56 years, the former Ruth Pell; two sons, Dr. Samuel S. Rifman of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Melvin S. Rifman of Baltimore; a sister, Ray Stern of Columbia; and two grandchildren.

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