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Joseph H. H. Kaplan, retired chief judge for the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, dies

Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan had a leading role in the resolution of Maryland’s savings and loan crisis of the 1980s.
Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan had a leading role in the resolution of Maryland’s savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. (PERRY THORSVIK)

Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, the retired chief judge for the Circuit Court for Baltimore City who was remembered for his pragmatic ability to negotiate problematic issues, died Wednesday at Union Memorial Hospital. He was 85.

During a long career he played a leading role in the resolution of Maryland’s savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. He once sent Jeffrey Levitt, a central figure in the banking scandal, to jail for contempt of court.

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“Joe had a wonderful way of pushing a settlement in cases that did not appear to be resolvable,” said Associate Judge Stuart R. Berger of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. “He was tough but fair, and all the parties knew that. He did an extraordinary job and he was also devoted to Baltimore City.”

He also brokered a deal that allowed the Camden Yards development to go forward. He determined the value of the former Baltimore and Ohio freight warehouse at a figure accepted by the structure’s former owners.

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He was a champion of the approval of adoptions without regard for a parent’s sexual orientation.

He also negotiated the resolution of ownership of the George A. Lucas Art Collection.

“Judge Kaplan was a judge’s judge,” said attorney Paul Mark Sandler. “He had the ability to see directly to the heart of a matter. He had a third eye and was always thinking of the public good. He was the judge all of us wanted to be before him. When a lawyer was off base, he did not hesitate to say so.”

He also said, “Judge Kaplan would go out of his way to help young lawyers.”

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Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan was a champion of the approval of adoptions without regard for a parent’s sexual orientation.
Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan was a champion of the approval of adoptions without regard for a parent’s sexual orientation. (COOK/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

He served as administrative judge and then headed Baltimore’s Circuit Court, where he presided for more than 30 years.

A devotee of architecture, he oversaw the restoration of his beloved, historic Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse as well as the construction of a new Juvenile Justice Center.

Born Joseph Henry Herbst Kaplan in Brooklyn, New York, he was the son of Dorothy Herbst Kaplan and Irving E. Kaplan.

He came to Baltimore to earn a degree at Johns Hopkins University and was a graduate at the University of Chicago Law School, where he was editor of the University of Chicago Law Review.

He was a law clerk to Judge Frederick W. Brune who sat on the Maryland Court of Appeals.

He was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1961 and went on to be a partner at Venable, Baetjer & Howard, where he served in the firm’s litigation department from 1969 to 1977.

“He was born to be a judge. He had an innate sense of fairness,” said John Henry Lewin Jr., a friend and his former law partner. “In the old days we all lunched at Horn & Horn, and our table frequently included members of City Council, people such as Bob Embry and Mayor Tommy D’Alesandro III”

Mr. Lewin also said, “People knew that when Joe took an interest, he would excel. He earned people’s respect.”

As a young lawyer, Judge Kaplan represented Lester Matz, a Baltimore County contractor who admitted to making illegal payments to Spiro T. Agnew, the Baltimore county executive who was later vice president. Agnew, who resigned, left public office in disgrace in 1973.

“In the Agnew prosecution, Joe definitely played a significant role,” said Mr. Lewin.

He was named a judge in 1977.

“Joe went to Chicago and those winters hardened him. He never wore an overcoat. And if it got really ugly he might don a scarf,” said Mr. Lewin. “He had a penchant for antiques and collected clocks and was adept at rebuilding them. He kept a grandfather clock in his office.”

Mr. Lewin described the judge as “a wonderful lawyer and he rolled up his sleeves and worked hard.”

“He was a methodical, well prepared lawyer,” said his former Venable partner, James D. Wright. “He was calm, approachable and a warm person.”

“No matter how complex the matter, the Judge was always prepared, having read the filings and having an intimate understanding of the law,” said a family statement. “He treated all who came before him with courtesy and respect from counsel to litigants – to sit before Judge Kaplan was to be heard and treated fairly.”

Baltimore Circuit Court Chief Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan retired in 2006 after decades on the bench. Here, he stands in his secretary's office.
Baltimore Circuit Court Chief Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan retired in 2006 after decades on the bench. Here, he stands in his secretary's office. (BARBARA HADDOCK TAYLOR/Baltimore Sun)

Judge Kaplan found himself in the middle of the collapse of the Maryland Savings and Loan industry in the middle 1980s.

“Kaplan, [was] catapulted to folk-hero status for his adroit handling of the enormously complex legal issues in Maryland’s S&L crisis,” said a 1986 Washington Post article.

Judge Kaplan sentenced Jeffrey A. Levitt, the key figure in the Old Court Savings and Loan collapse, to contempt of court for overspending his $1,000-a-week allowance.

Levitt, who later admitted his desire for money had become a “compulsion,” was later sentenced by another Baltimore judge to 30 years’ imprisonment.

He also took the case of the George A. Lucas art collection, which was owned by the Maryland Institute College of Art but on long-term loan to the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

He worked out a settlement with former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening wherein the two museums were able to acquire the collection after MICA threatened to put the assemblage of prints, paintings and bronze statues up for sale.

“Without Judge Kaplan, that resolution would have never happened,” said Fred Lazarus, former MICA president.

“I got to know Joe as an incredibly smart lawyer who was fair. Many believed he possessed the the wisdom of Solomon. He was both a scholar and pragmatist and applied the law with common sense,” said Stanley Mazaroff, a a former Venable partner and the author “A Paris Life, A Baltimore Treasure, the Remarkable Lives of of George A. Lucas and His Art Collection.”

Among his many decisions was the handling of a bitter dispute among board members of the Joseph Richey House, a pioneering Baltimore City hospice where many AIDS patients died. Judge Kaplan led the negotiations that kept the hospice open.

In 1995, he denied family members of John Wilkes Booth, who killed President Abraham Lincoln, a petition to exhume the assassin’s grave in Green Mount Cemetery. In the decision, Judge Kaplan said the law requires that graves remain undisturbed unless there are “substantial, compelling or valid” reasons to reopen them. He found the petitioners’ arguments lacking.

He was a past president of the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar and chaired the Alcoholism Services Advisory Committee of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine 1979-85.

He was a past president of the Roland Park Roads and Maintenance Corp. and led a 1970s effort to preserve the 1895 Roland Park Shopping Center from a threatened modernization.

He also served on the board of trustees for the Baltimore City Historical Society and the Baltimore Bar Foundation. He was also active in the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Central Maryland and the Dismas House in West Baltimore.

Survivors include his wife of nearly 59 years, Joy Keller Kaplan; two daughters, Elizabeth M. Fitzgerald of Baltimore and Katharine Herbst Kaplan of Washington, D.C. and a son, Dr. Frederick Thomas D. Kaplan who lives outside Indianapolis, Indiana; and nine grandchildren.

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A funeral is planned for later this year.

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