Roszel Cathcart Thomsen


Roszel Thomsen, who died here Wednesday at the age of 91, served his nation as a federal district judge from his appointment 1954 almost until his final illness. He was one of the most respected lawyers in the state when he became a judge, and his tenure on the bench was regarded as outstanding by his peers and by other court watchers.

Before he became a judge, he also was known for his public service. He was a member of the city's school board for 10 years, from 1944 to 1954. As president of the board in 1952, he led the city in ending its racial segregation policy at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. This was before the Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional.

As a federal trial judge, Mr. Thomsen's rulings desegregated schools in Harford and St. Mary's counties. He also required state prisons to end certain cruel practices. He saw to it that the city police would adopt new search and seizure rules that complied with a higher standard of respect for the rights of individuals.

It is the fate of trial judges' opinions to be ephemeral. Seldom do they have the latitude to expound philosophically, as do appellate judges. But the accumulation of Judge Thomsen's decisions is a monument to his life, his wisdom and his dedication to the law. And he expressed his philosophy of the law once in a way that will live as long in literature as in law libraries. Perhaps longer.

In 1968, Daniel and Philip Berrigan led seven associates in the peace movement to Local Board 33 in Catonsville and burned draft records with napalm. They were arrested and tried before Judge Thomsen, in a dramatic confrontation of conscience and the law that attracted worldwide attention. Daniel Berrigan later wrote a play about it, "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine." He drew heavily and literally on the actual trial record.

At one point he quotes Judge Thomsen in a way that captures his essence:

"As a man I would be a very funny sort if I were not moved by your views," Judge Thomsen said after a passionate, poetic anti-war speech by Father Berrigan. "I agree with you completely as a person. But the basic principle of our law is that we do things in an orderly fashion. People cannot take the law into their own hands. I did what the law required me to do. All we can do is our best."

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