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James Macgill set standard on bench


James Macgill, former chief judge of Maryland's 5th Circuit Court, died of cancer at his Mount Airy home Sunday night at age 80.

Those who knew him, worked with him or tried cases before him during his 26 years on the bench say he set a judicial standard not only for Howard County, but for the state.

"He is the best trial judge I ever went before," said Ellicott City attorney Thomas E. Lloyd. "He made the parties and attorneys feel it was their courtroom and that he was a very neutral observer and umpire."

Said Circuit Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr.: "Win or lose, you felt you had your day in court. He was an outstanding judge -- very, very intelligent, an exceptional writer of opinions. I'm really going to miss him."

"He was a great scholar," Mr. Lloyd said. "He considered everything fully. Rarely were his decisions overturned."

He combined legal acumen with kindness and concern for everyone, especially so-called little people, friends said.

"He was so polite and courteous on the bench," Mr. Lloyd said. "He made even the most junior attorneys, the most inexperienced members of the bar feel welcome. He was never short or curt or offensive to even the most inept of lawyers.

"He was a great man and has had a great influence on all the judicial proceedings in Howard County," said Mr. Lloyd. "All the judges try to emulate him. The worst thing you can say to them is that 'Judge Macgill never would have done that.' "

Born in Baltimore in 1912, Judge Macgill was a direct descendant of the Rev. James Macgill, who in the 1700s became first rector of Christ Episcopal Church on Oakland Mills Road. He grew up in the family home -- now Kings Contrivance Restaurant -- on the family's Athol Farm and attended Donaldson School in Ilchester, which is now Trinity Preparatory School.

After his graduation from the Johns Hopkins University in 1934 with a bachelor's degree in literature and languages, he HTC attended law school at night at the University of Maryland. He graduated in 1939.

Unable to enlist in the Army because of poor eyesight, Judge Macgill joined the American Field Service and became a volunteer ambulance driver with the British army, serving in Syria, Libya, India and Burma.

After the war, he returned to Ellicott City to practice law. In 1948, he became the county's first zoning commissioner, and in 1951, the county's first planning commissioner.

Gov. Theodore McKeldin appointed him a Circuit Court judge in 1954 -- a position to which he was twice re-elected. He retired in 1980.

When Judge Macgill hired the late Ambrose Cross as a bailiff in 1976, he personally taught Mr. Cross the role, including a "hear ye, hear ye" chant to announce the arrival of the judge. Aware of the judge's sense of humor, Mr. Cross one day decided to imitate comedian Flip Wilson and announced to the court, "Here come da judge."

Judge Macgill was not amused.

He called Mr. Cross into his chambers for a private scolding. "He reminded me he did not teach me to do that," Mr. Cross said in an interview years later. "I slipped up that day."

The judge devoted much of his retirement time to his prize-winning wood-carving and sculpture, avocations he began in 1956 under the tutelage of renowned sculptor Reuben Kramer. Mr. Kramer sculpted a bust of Judge Macgill that is displayed behind the witness chair in the ceremonial courtroom in the county courthouse.

Judge Macgill's first wife, Mary Buckler Macgill, died in 1972.

He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth R. Macgill of Mount Airy; a sister, Elizabeth Macgill Bickley of Hyattsville; a daughter, Mary Macgill Agre of Towson; a stepdaughter, Sally Keene Craig of Annapolis; a son, James Macgill Jr. of Bel Air; and six grandchildren.

A funeral service was to be held at noon today in Ellicott City. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. July 13 at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center.

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