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'One of a kind' lawyer Kaplan slows down just a bit at 83 'Living legend' cuts colorful swath

That puff of color shuffling down the courthouse corridor i Morris Kaplan.

One day he wears his pink sport coat, green pants and yellow socks. The next day it's his blue sport coat, lime tie and red pants. His notes, messages and court documents -- his entire file cabinet -- are stuffed into his pockets.

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It's an unusual look for a lawyer. Then again, Morris Kaplan is an unusual lawyer.

He is 83, stooped, frail, has thin white hair and a profile like the Old Man of the Mountain. He's the most recognizable figure in the courthouses of Baltimore.

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"They always called me the busiest lawyer in town," Mr. Kaplan says, this day wearing red plaid pants. "I've had all the poor clients; that's always been the case. I had the greatest volume for any individual lawyer in town."

For 62 years he has been a working lawyer in the city. He has defended robbers and murderers with a wit and charm that endeared him to nearly everyone.

"He's an incredible character," says lawyer Alan L. Cohen. "He's one of a kind," says Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward J. Angeletti. "He is truly a living legend," says Vickie Wash, an assistant state's attorney.

But age is catching up with Morris Kaplan.

In July, the month he turned 83, his name was placed on the roster of inactive lawyers. That meant that Mr. Kaplan, the state's oldest criminal lawyer, could no longer try cases in court.

He didn't want to become inactive but had little choice. Clients and the Attorney Grievance Commission had accused him of failing to appear for trials, failing to file one appeal and two motions for reconsideration of sentence, and failing to keep records of fee agreements.

In the face of disciplinary action by the Maryland Court of Appeals, possibly even disbarment, Mr. Kaplan placed himself on the inactive list. A short time later, the Court of Appeals issued its own order rendering Mr. Kaplan inactive.

Mr. Kaplan acknowledges that he has slowed down physically. He suffers from asthma. He has an arthritic neck that prevents his head from turning his head left or right and an arthritic back that prevents him from looking up.

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In August last year he fell in a courtroom and broke his left hip. He returned to work in about six months with a walker, and now he walks with a cane.

But mentally, he says, he is as fit as ever. He sits in his office and counters the charges against him by the Attorney Grievance Commission. He acknowledges that he may have made one mistake, missing trials of a client whose trial dates were listed under an alias.

He says he is too short-winded to try cases before juries but that he could still try a case or two before a judge. He might even petition the Court of Appeals for reinstatement.

"I'm going to die with my boots on," he says. "I'll be here till the man puts me in the box. That's why I don't ride on Reisterstown Road if I can help it. That's where Levinson's got his funeral home."

"Inactively active"

Mr. Kaplan describes himself now as "inactively active." He rides to work every day with his son Michael, also a lawyer. They share an office with Michael's son, Donald, on the 13th floor of the Court Square Building downtown.

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One of his other sons, Marty, runs a methadone maintenance program for heroin addicts, a program Mr. Kaplan started three years ago.

"I can do anything but try a case," Mr. Kaplan says. "I'm doing all the office work now. I'm the consultant."

He still interviews clients and takes phone calls for new business. He walks to the Clarence Mitchell Jr. Courthouse or Courthouse East nearly every day, running errands or visiting friends. Women hug him, young men shake his hand, and people with relatives in jail still call his name, hoping the wise old lawyer can get their loved ones home.

He has gotten home more than his share.

Judge Angeletti and Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan say Morris Kaplan never forgot an important fact or circumstance and that he always cut right to the heart of the matter.

"He didn't bother with the law very much; he didn't cite a lot of cases," Judge Kaplan says. "He would simply try to convince the jury that it didn't happen or that his defendant wasn't involved with it."

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He didn't always succeed.

One time, Judge Kaplan says, Mr. Kaplan defended several teen-agers accused of stealing meat. They were caught in the Inner Harbor late at night with plastic bags of meat.

"Morris made the argument that they were out for a midnight swim," Judge Kaplan says. "And the meat just happened to be there."

Sometimes you can laugh a case out of court, and sometimes you can't, the judge says. "The floating meat was just too much."

Alan L. Cohen, a criminal lawyer who started out as a prosecutor, remembers the first time he came up against Mr. Kaplan.

A man and woman had broken up, and the woman claimed the man later threatened her and her new boyfriend with a sawed-off shotgun. Mr. Kaplan represented the man with the shotgun.

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"Morris knew everybody"

"As it turned out, Morris knew everybody in the case," Mr. Cohen says. "He had represented the woman before, and her boyfriend. He discredited them both. He killed us."

Mr. Kaplan represented anybody who knocked at his door or asked for his card outside a courtroom. He always had too much to do. He became legendary for being late.

"I always got a kick out of Morris," Judge Kaplan says. "And I always got a special kick out of trying to find Morris. He was always in six different places at once."

Judges would send clerks, secretaries and guards with walkie-talkies out searching for him. They'd find him and lead him into court, where lawyers, clerks and everyone else waited patiently, usually not angrily, because it was Morris Kaplan.

He became legendary, too, for a memory so sharp and deep that he never took notes during a trial.

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He also never asked clients whether they were guilty.

"If a client asked me if I believed he was innocent, I said, 'You didn't hire me to give my opinion on your guilt or innocence. You hired me to get you off, and that's what I'm going to try to do,' " Mr. Kaplan says.

"My wife asked me for 52 years how could I represent a man I knew was guilty. I said to her, 'I don't know he's guilty till a judge or jury finds him guilty.'

"Besides, I told her, 'you and the children want to eat?' "

The Kaplans of Eutaw Street

Mr. Kaplan has lived in Baltimore since he was a few days old. He was born in New York City a couple of days after his parents stepped off a boat from Lithuania. They came right to Baltimore, where they had friends.

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Lena and Charles Kaplan made women's clothing in a shop on Eutaw Street. Then they went into the grocery business, and later they bought and sold real estate. They had four children after Morris.

"You had an option whether you wanted to be a doctor or lawyer," Mr. Kaplan says. "In the Jewish ideology, the oldest became a professional. And any boy, if the parents had the money, was to be a doctor or lawyer."

Mr. Kaplan went to City College and then the University of Baltimore. He zipped through in 2 1/2 years, graduating in 1928, when he was 19.

Mr. Kaplan had to wait until he was 21 to practice. He started with personal-injury and divorce cases, then represented bars on The Block and finally settled on criminal law.

"I handled the kind of cases most of us can understand -- the ordinary rapist, robber," Mr. Kaplan says. "They're not very complex cases.

"But drugs have changed society altogether. You have a different kind of defendant today. The ages are 14 to 18. They're mad, really mad, like mad dogs. They have no remorse. Basically, they're born without kindness, compassion and lack of any decent qualities."

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So how does someone, especially someone in his 80s, defend such a person?

"I told everybody, lawyers included, that at the end of the day I went home, I completely forgot about it," Mr. Kaplan says. "Maybe the defendant didn't, but I did.

"Some people wonder how you can be a funeral director. I get sick looking at a dead guy. Well, I had a client once, a Lithuanian funeral director named Grebliauckas.

"He came in all happy one day. I asked him: 'What you got to be so happy about?' And he said: 'I had three funerals today.' "

So there you have it, Mr. Kaplan says. He has been happy being a criminal lawyer.

"I've lived like a king," he says. "I have a nice home, a beautiful, wonderful wife for 52 years. Before she died, she had four children who lived in style.

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"We gave them a legacy money can't buy. They're all handsome or beautiful. They've all got brains. They've got good stomachs. And they all have a sense of humor.

"I met the best of people. I've been to the best places. I've seen all the sporting events. I've eaten at the fanciest restaurants.

"But really, my favorite at home is still a bologna sandwich for dinner, and I'm not kidding."


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