Edward S. Northrop, retired chief judge of the U.S. District Court for Maryland and a former state senator, died in his sleep Tuesday of undetermined causes at Brook Grove Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Olney. He was 92.
Born in Chevy Chase, Judge Northrop was known as both pragmatic and comical, and was well-liked in the Baltimore courthouse for his affable and personable manner.
He held the distinction of being the first Democrat - and first attorney outside of Baltimore - to serve on the federal bench in Maryland since before the Civil War, when President John F. Kennedy appointed him in 1961. Judge Northrop, who retired to senior status in 1981, had been in failing health for the past year, according to his family.
A graduate of George Washington University, where he earned a law degree in 1937, Judge Northrop was elected to the governing body of Chevy Chase Village at age 22 and later served as village manager and general counsel.
He established a private law practice in Montgomery County, but had to walk away from it - and a case in the middle of a trial - for a call to duty by the Navy in April 1941. He was assigned to the Joint Intelligence Collection Agency, charged with gathering top-secret information, and ended his World War II service in 1945 holding the rank of commander.
After the war, he returned to law and in 1954 was elected to the state Senate. The next year he was named chairman of the Taxation and Fiscal Affairs Committee and was made a member of a joint commission, along with a Virginia state senator and commissioners from the District of Columbia, to propose changes for mass transportation in the Washington area.
As a result, Judge Northrop became a founder of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and established the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Agency.
He was re-elected in 1958, and a year later was chosen as Senate majority leader and chairman of the Finance Committee.
He had planned to run for the U.S. Senate in 1962, and laughed when lawyer and friend Alfred L. Scanlan told him that he was going to write to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to suggest him for a U.S. District Court appointment. But Kennedy wrote back that he was interested, and Northrop soon won the appointment - even though he hadn't sought it.
During his 42 years on the court, including serving as chief judge from 1970 to 1981, he presided over many high-profile cases - among them the 1968 trial of four anti-war protesters, including then-priest Philip Berrigan, for pouring blood over draft records at Baltimore's Customs House.
In 1978, he issued a temporary restraining order suspending a Federal Aviation Administration regulation that classified the white canes used by blind people as "carry-on luggage" too long to fit under seats. The regulation had forced the blind to surrender their canes during takeoffs and landings.
Judge Northrop and the rest of Maryland's federal judges had to disqualify themselves from one of the most famous cases prosecuted in Maryland - against then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, because of what was described as Agnew's "unique relationship" with the bench before his 1973 resignation and no-contest plea to tax evasion.
"A judge's mind is like a bathtub. When you are working on something, it fills up. But, when the case is over, everything just drains out," Judge Northrop told The Sun in 1981, when he stepped down as chief judge two weeks before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.
He moved to senior judge status, continuing to hear cases.
"One of the things that bothers me when faced with retirement is that I don't have a hobby," he said then. "I just work my can off."
"He was a man who loved the law, but valued common sense above everything else," said retired U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin, who was a clerk to Judge Northrop in 1971.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at St. John's Episcopal Church in Olney.
Judge Northrop's wife of 50 years, the former Barbara Burdette, died in 1989.
He is survived by two sons, Edward Northrop of Abingdon and Peter Northrop of Olney; a daughter, St. Julien Northrop Butler of South Bend, Ind.; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.