Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening remembers clearly the day when he met with Robert M. Bell in an out-of-the-way Carroll County diner to discreetly discuss Judge Bell’s future as Maryland’s first African American chief judge of the Court of Appeals. Politically, it was a tough call. Some lawmakers wanted the first-term governor to extend the mandatory retirement date so that Robert C. Murphy could stay in the role. Others were pushing for Alan M. Wilner, then the chief judge of the state’s second highest court and a much-admired jurist. But Mr. Glendening had his eye on making history and breaking up the white men’s club that was the Maryland judiciary. He was impressed by the Harvard Law-trained East Baltimore native who had served with distinction at every level of the judiciary from District Court to the Court of Appeals. In 1996, history was made.
“I saw Bob Bell a year or two after he retired, and I told him, you did me proud,” the two-term governor recalls. “And that’s true. He went in there under a great deal of pressure. There was a lot of extra weight on his shoulders. Let him make one mistake and they’d have said, ‘Look, it was not the time.’ ”
Few have broken barriers in Maryland jurisprudence like Judge Bell, beginning at the tender age of 16 when he was arrested in a civil rights protest at a whites-only restaurant. That incident eventually became a noted court case, Bell v. Maryland, that’s still taught in law school. But back then, the incident was something of a crossroads for him personally: Was the son of a sharecropper going to get the education his mother so desperately wanted for him and his three brothers or was he going to end up on the wrong side of the law? He never even told her he was going to the protest, out of concern it might upset her.
“My involvement in civil rights and my experience with that court case didn’t inspire me to be a lawyer or drive me toward success,” Judge Bell says. “Rather, I think it’s a reflection of what can happen if one sets a goal and sails continuously towards it using the most important aspect of any success, hard work.”
The judge credits his mother and a lot of mentors he met along the way for helping him, but that hard-work theme comes up in conversation frequently. He graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School as class valedictorian and student body president. From there, he went to nearby Morgan State and then he became the first Morgan grad to be accepted at Harvard Law, excelling at every level along the way. His path somewhat paralleled that of another famous Baltimorean, Reginald F. Lewis, who died in 1993 after building a billion-dollar empire. They even shared a ticket — at Dunbar when Judge Bell was president, Lewis served as vice president.
“He is an absolutely delightful person who is upbeat and proceeds on the premise that there is nothing he can’t accomplish — within a reasonable bounds,” says Arrie W. Davis, a retired Court of Special Appeals judge who has known him since they were both young law school grads in Baltimore. “I can’t think of anyone who is more upbeat and more positive than he is.”
After joining a Baltimore law firm, it wasn’t long before Judge Bell set his sights on the bench, but African American judges were a rarity in those days. As Judge Davis recalls, you could put all of Baltimore’s African American judges in a single car and still have room to pick up the sole African American judge in Prince George’s County. That didn’t really change, Judge Bell says, until the election of Governor Glendening, who saw the value of diversity. But others recall that history slightly differently: Judge Bell was blazing a trail for diversity in the court long before Mr. Glendening was elected as he rose up the ladder from district to circuit to appeals court judge, demonstrating himself every bit as good a judge as his white counterparts.
Judge Bell declines to name a favorite decision or landmark case about which he is especially proud, but he does agree that he helped make the judicial system more accessible to people of limited means. He pushed for technological improvements in the courts and for training judges about science and technology. He was always careful to consult his fellow judges when making administrative decisions, and he has been a champion of alternative dispute resolution — settling disputes outside a courtroom. He is proud of his legacy generally (but is not prone to bragging about it). That he leaves to others — like those inspired by his 2007 dissent in Conaway v. Deane in which he made the case for same-sex marriage, comparing Maryland’s denial of that right to same-sex couples to earlier laws that denied blacks from marrying whites.
“The majority misapprehends the real issue. The real issue in this case,” he wrote well before his colleagues on the bench or in Maryland’s political establishment came to recognize same-sex marriage as a human right, “when properly framed, is whether marriage is a fundamental right. The issue has already been resolved; indeed, we all agree that it has been answered in the affirmative, and the right is firmly established.”
Robert M. Bell
Born: July 6, 1943, Rocky Mount, N.C. Education: Paul Laurence Dunbar Jr. Sr. High School; B.A., History and Political Science, Morgan State College (now University); J.D. Harvard Law School. Career: Associate, Piper & Marbury Law Firm, 1969-1975; associate judge, District Court of Maryland, sitting in Baltimore City, 1975-1980; associate judge, Supreme Bench of Baltimore (now the Circuit Court for Baltimore City), 1980-1984; associate judge, Maryland Court of Special Appeals, 1984-1991; judge, Maryland Court of Appeals, 1991-1996; chief judge, Maryland Court of Appeals, 1996-2013. Civic engagement: Trustee, Hood College, Frederick; president, The Clarence Logan Civil Rights Alumna Association, Morgan State University; chairman of the Board of National Courts and Sciences Institute (NCSI), a non-profit corporation dedicated to the education of judges in the sciences and technology. Family: Unmarried. Two older siblings, Ellison and Joe Louise are deceased, as are parents Thomas and Rosa Lee Bell.
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