Longtime district judge, Roszel C. Thomsen, dies


Judge Roszel C. Thomsen's obituary yesterday described him as the longest-serving U.S. District Court judge ever. He served longer than any other federal judge in Maryland.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Judge Roszel Cathcart Thomsen, described in a published history as the longest-serving U.S. District Court judge ever, died yesterday at Union Memorial Hospital. He was 91.

Judge Thomsen had been sick with pneumonia for two weeks but had apparently recovered from that illness and was about to be released from the hospital, a family member said. The cause of his death was not known.

He remained a federal District Court judge in Baltimore for 38 years. His career as a civic leader and jurist also included a 10-year stint as president of the Baltimore school board and eight years as a member of the Judicial Conference of the United States. He was chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Baltimore in the 1960s, when the court's role expanded dramatically under new civil rights legislation.

He was remembered yesterday at Baltimore's Edward A. Garmatz federal court building as a cordial and tireless judge of great intellect with the ability to weave smoothly through complicated issues.

After he reached senior status in 1971, he retired as an active judge but continued to work every day, despite his age, until his final illness.

"We'd ask him on nasty days what he was doing in here," said Robert W. Mazzuca, a court security officer at the federal court building. "He would say, 'If I keep on coming to work, I'll live to a long age.' That, he did."

Ann C. Cahill, a secretary in the chambers where Judge Thomsen worked, said, "He loved coming to work. He hated holidays."

The judge was escorted to work daily by a longtime family friend, Susan P. Dorsett, who remembered his "tremendous sense of humor and his knowledge of history."

Judge Thomsen's family lived in Bolton Hill when he was born and later moved to Roland Park. He blazed through Boys Latin School by skipping grades, graduating at the age of 14. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1919 from the Johns Hopkins University, where he was a champion debater.

He was persuaded by his parents and his mentor, the late U.S. Circuit Judge Morris Ames Soper, to pursue a legal career. So he attended the University of Maryland Law School at night while working during the day for Judge Soper, then chief judge of the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City. Judge Thomsen received his law degree in 1922.

His first case before the U.S. Supreme Court was argued in 1929, and he received news that he had won it while honeymooning in Europe with his bride, the former Carol Griffing Wolf. She survives him at their Roland Park home.

In the 1930s, he served on an advisory committee that helped draft the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which took effect in 1938. That work was a prelude to the many years he served on the Federal Civil Rules Committee.

One of the most famous trials over which he presided was that of the "Catonsville Nine," which resulted in the convictions of the Vietnam War protesters.

Judge Thomsen has been president of the Family Welfare Association, board president of Goucher College, instructor of commercial law at Hopkins, instructor at the University of Maryland Law School and secretary to the State Board of Law Examiners. He was president of the Maryland Bar Association for 1971-72.

While president of the Baltimore school board, he led the move to approve a proposal by Superintendent John H. Fischer to integrate Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1952, two years before the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.

He was appointed to the federal bench by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on May 12, 1954, to fill a position that became vacant when Judge W. Calvin Chestnut retired to senior status. At that time, there were only three judges on the federal bench here. Now, there are 15.

Judge Thomsen was the chief federal district judge in Baltimore from 1955 to 1970.

He is remembered by Judge Edward S. Northrop as a man who ruled quickly on evidence and was demanding of lawyers and his fellow judges.

Judge Northrop also praised him for his role in facilitating the legal transformation of the bankrupt Pennsylvania Railroad into the Amtrak system while working on a three-judge court established by the Railroad Reorganization Act of 1973.

"Judge Thomsen was a very brilliant, facile judge," Judge Northrop remarked.

In addition to his wife, survivors include his son, George E. Thomsen of Baltimore; two daughters, Grace T. Babcock of Fallston and Margaret T. Moler of Stoneleigh; two brothers, William Edward Thomsen of Crofton and Ferris Thomsen of Holderness, N.H.; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Grace United Methodist Church, North Charles Street and Northern Parkway.

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