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Judge rules with his heart


He is known to wield a tough sentence in his anger at criminals for fouling his home turf, but he also carries a soft spot. He is a judicial workhorse, but he makes time for whoever wants to speak with him and reads five newspapers a day.

He is also an admittedly old-fashioned man who holds the hand of his wife of 47 years as they go to lunch every day. He watches Lawrence Welk reruns on television and believes in hard work and the love of family and protecting the community.

Lawyers say Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Eugene M. (the M is for "Michael," not "Maximum," as some lawyers suggest) Lerner is uncannily in tune with what the public likes in its judges.

"He does more from the bench that people think a judge ought to do," said Glen Burnie lawyer T. Joseph Touhey, noting that Lerner's outrage at criminal behavior and his nudging of civil litigants to settle their cases out of court reflect public thinking about personal safety and courtroom squabbles.

Lerner, who will be forced to retire when he turns 70 in December 2001, already has 21 years on the bench. Most lawyers who come before him have no recollection of the Circuit Court without him meandering into the hallways to ask, "What's the scoop?"

Yesterday, Lerner's colleagues on the bench stunned him with an early-morning ceremony, giving him a "longevity award" for being the Circuit Court's third-longest-serving judge in the court's history.

Only Nicholas Brewer, on the bench 27 years [1837-1864] and Oliver Miller, a judge for 25 years (1867-1892) beat him, said Judge James C. Cawood Jr., the court's unofficial historian.

"I cried when he got invested," said Judge James C. Cawood Jr., recalling the 1979 ceremony when Lerner first donned a black robe. "But that was because I was one of the candidates."

Lerner's work ethic is admired, his crisply neat office is envied, and his willingness to take everything from overflow cases to ugly cases is respected.

"He has really been an anchor for this court," said Administrative Judge Clayton Greene Jr.

"We could give him an award too - for being the second-longest customer of the business," said Charlie Cea, who runs Bagel And, the Annapolis shop where Lerner starts his days with an egg-sandwich bagel and an earful of opinions from the regulars.

"He holds bagel court. He has got a very rough constituency to deal with. If somebody disagrees with him, they tell him," Cea said

His perspectives on life are evident in his chambers, where his desk is crowded with photos of his family and all 21 people who have clerked for him. He keeps in a desk drawer a black book of appellate court rulings on his decisions. Norman Rockwell prints dominate his outer room, and he holds dear that home-family-town perspective of values he fears have gone out of vogue.

"I guess maybe in some ways I live in the past," he said this week. "I kind of like the way things were years ago, where there was respect for people. People didn't commit the crimes they do today."

He worries, he said, about children growing up in a rougher atmosphere - where he shot marbles as a boy, kids now shoot each other.

He brings to Courtroom 3A a reputation for steep sentences - one that Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr., elevated to the Court of Special Appeals in 1996, says may be more bark than bite. That's because over two decades, Lerner has tried many serious cases in which the defendant earned the sentence, Thieme said.

"Certainly, he is a judge that if you are a state's attorney, you'd like to have," said the county State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee. "A defense lawyer wouldn't have that view."

Longtime lawyers say Lerner sees himself as the last line of defense of his community, tough but fair.

Criminal defense lawyers say that they try to avoid his courtroom with a client facing serious charges or a repeat offender.

They say no judge can handle a criminal defendant like Lerner, whose chastising of defendants and sentences are so legendary that he's been called "Maximum Gene" and "Lerner the Burner."

"He can be tough. God knows, he sent enough clients of mine to jail," said Touhey. "I will miss him. My clients may not."

But Lerner has a compassionate side that is less known. Former law clerk Marisa Stebenne said that he also returned drug addicts who completed rehabilitation to court to congratulate them in the presence of their families. He writes letters of recommendation for military service for criminal defendants who finish probation.

Whether he has come far depends on your viewpoint. His office is about 60 feet from the hospital room where he was born in 1931, and he left for the Army in 1954 from the courthouse steps.

The son of a pawnshop operator, Lerner grew up in a family of modest means in Annapolis, playing basketball and riding his scooter. He graduated from Annapolis High School in 1948, and the class reunion group meets in his home. His bar mitzvah was in Kneseth Israel Congregation, and that is where he worships.

"Everyone in their life should have a friend like Judge Lerner," said Mel Hyatt, his close boyhood chum. As teen-agers, they doused the Armory gym with foam from a fire extinguisher - something Lerner told him he's kept in mind when pranksters appear before him.

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