Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan has been on the city Circuit Court bench since 1977; Judge Clifton J. Gordy since 1985. Both planned to retire within a year.
But Kaplan, Baltimore's longest-serving and perhaps most prolific judge, disclosed yesterday that he will step down from the bench a few months early so that Gordy, his friend and colleague, can briefly serve as chief judge -- a ceremonial title given to the judge with the most seniority.
"This is one of the most gracious things I've ever seen or heard of one colleague doing for another," Gordy said. "I thought I would be in a situation where I'd be always a bridesmaid and never a bride."
Kaplan shrugged off his good deed, saying, "He asked me to do it, I said, 'Sure, I'm glad to do it for you,' and I did it. That was the sum total of my decision."
Gordy, to the best of anyone's knowledge, would be the first black chief judge of the city's Circuit Court, said Rita Buettner, a state courts spokeswoman. The chief judge of Montgomery County's Circuit Court is black.
In January, Kaplan turns 70, the state's mandatory retirement age for judges. Instead of retiring then, he wrote in a letter last week to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. saying that he will retire Oct. 1.
Gordy turns 60 in November, and he said he has long planned to step down at that age. His retirement plans haven't changed, he said, meaning that he will be chief judge for just 37 days.
Behind Gordy in seniority are Judge John N. Prevas and Judge John C. Themelis. Kaplan pointed out that, after Gordy retires, it will be "a long while" before an African-American judge has the most seniority.
The chief judge presides over judicial ceremonies and signs official correspondence, such as summonses. There is no difference in salary, which is about $125,000 per year for all state circuit judges.
Judges can continue to serve as substitute judges after their retirement, which Kaplan said he plans to do.
For about eight years, Kaplan has been the Circuit Court's most senior judge, holding the title of chief judge since Judge Robert I.H. Hammerman retired in August 1998.
Kaplan also was administrative judge -- sort of a chief executive officer of the courthouse who is appointed by the Court of Appeals' chief judge -- for 15 years until 1999, a time when chronic trial delays led to the dismissal of serious criminal charges. Kaplan said he stepped down because he felt Chief Judge Robert M. Bell had stripped him of his power and was trying to force him out.
In his three decades on the bench, Kaplan has presided over some of the most important cases in the city.
For a decade, Kaplan has overseen negotiations to settle three lawsuits over the state funding of city public schools. The settlement resulted in legislation in 1997 that provided $254 million more in state funds over five years for city schools and resulted in an overhaul of the city school board and administration.
In August 2004, Kaplan ruled that the state had unlawfully underfunded city schools by $400 million to $800 million since 2000. Officials from the Maryland State Department of Education say they have put an extra $200 million into city schools since the 2002-2003 school year.
The judge's deep roots in that litigation are reflected in his letter to Ehrlich:
"It would be my fond wish and nothing would please me more than to see the State and the City working together to give the public school children in Baltimore City an adequate education!"
In the 1980s, Kaplan oversaw receivership cases resulting from the Old Court Savings and Loan scandal.
Kaplan said one of his proudest moments came in June 1996, when he kept the renowned Lucas Collection of paintings, sculptures and prints in the state even as a fight among three museums threatened to put it on the auction block.
The judge has drawn criticism over the years. In August 1994, Kaplan met privately with members of the City Council even though he was presiding over the theft and misconduct trial of troubled Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean. He later stepped aside to avoid the appearance of conflict.
His name also has surfaced in some of the city's worst child-death cases because, as a juvenile judge for several years, he was charged with granting or denying guardianship in hundreds of "children in need of assistance" cases.
Some critics said Kaplan was wrong to grant custody to guardians like Satrina Roberts, who later killed 15-year-old Ciara Jobes, and Keisha L. Carr, who fatally beat her newborn son. Kaplan has responded to the criticism in previous interviews by saying he made the best decisions he could with what information he had available.
But Kaplan said he hopes to be remembered for the "thousands of adoptions" over which he presided.
The father of three -- the youngest was adopted -- said in a Sun article in 1995 that adoption court was a welcome departure from the drudgery of criminal and civil dockets.
"Here, there's no fight," Kaplan said. "It's a bunch of happy people who have realized their dream."
Sun reporters Sara Neufeld and Liz Bowie contributed to this article.