Judge Paul E. Alpert retired Oct. 1 from his seat on the Court of Special Appeals -- not that anyone would notice.
After a surprise 60th birthday gathering in September at the Ocean City condominium where his family used to stay, he went right back to work hearing appeals. Now, he'll be on loan to the city, scheduled to hear criminal cases beginning this week through the end of the year, as a retired judge.
"We're very, very happy to have him come on board, said Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the Baltimore City Circuit Court. "He will be a big help to us."
"I'm looking forward to it," said Judge Alpert, who has served 23 years on the bench. It was in part because he missed the courtroom that he retired early from the appellate seat designated for Baltimore and Harford counties.
"I really miss being around people and being around the trial courts," said the gregarious judge, who will be honored by the Baltimore County Bar Association at a dinner tomorrow. "I'll have more time now to talk to people."
"Paul's got not only a great legal ability, but he's got a real sense of humanity and a lot of heart," said Alan M. Wilner, chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals. "So there's a real empathy and feeling that goes into his decisions.
"He's keenly aware of how these decisions affect litigants and their families. Sometimes you have to do things that are going to hurt them, but that's the law."
Defense lawyers and prosecutors alike said they welcome Judge Alpert's return to trial work after 13 years on the intermediate appellate court.
Apparently civilians liked him too. Judge Alpert said he was shocked when a former juror called to ask, "Will you marry me?" -- then realized that he was being asked to perform the ceremony.
The only child of Anne and the late Simon Alpert, the judge in a recent interview recalled seeing soldiers going by while growing up in Baltimore during World War II.
His father, a native of Poland who died in 1966, had an eighth-grade education and was a machine operator in a shoe factory in Dundalk for 45 years, until the business shut down. His mother was a saleswoman on Lexington Street, then a clerk for South Baltimore General Hospital and the Department of Parole and Probation.
"They were poor," he said simply. The future judge studied law at night and worked for a title company by day, a job he taught his father.
After graduating from the University of Baltimore law school with honors, he opened a neighborhood practice in 1958 with Julius Lichter in an empty grocery store on Druid Hill Avenue, he said. They rented out the upstairs to help cover costs -- but "the tenant moved out and took the pipes with him."
In 1966, he won a seat in the House of Delegates from the old 2nd District of Baltimore County, covering Pikesville, Randallstown, Catonsville and Woodlawn, and served until being named a District judge in 1972.
Judge Alpert laughed as he remembered some early courthouses: signing orders in his overcoat and gloves in the back of a firehouse, or listening to ice cream containers thud "like bodies falling" while holding court in a basement below a convenience store.
He moved up to the Baltimore County Circuit Court in 1977, and was named to the Court of Special Appeals on his birthday in September 1982.
Reflecting on his career, Judge Alpert said, "The two hardest things in being a judge are sentencing and custody cases. You're dealing with the future of individuals."
Referring to the appellate court, he added, "There's a difference when you're not eyeball to eyeball. We're limited: whether there was an abuse of discretion or reversible error; whether it was clearly erroneous.
"So I may not agree with the trial judge's opinion, but in most cases we defer to the judge because he's seen the people. We don't see the people.
"You still have the same degree of compassion that you had, but you can't let your compassion make your decision for you."
But if he ever lost that compassion, he said, "I wouldn't want to be a judge any more."