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Retired Baltimore County Circuit Judge Patrick Cavanaugh, who was known for tough but fair sentences, dies

Patrick Cavanaugh served as a circuit judge from 2002 until his retirement in 2013.
Patrick Cavanaugh served as a circuit judge from 2002 until his retirement in 2013. (handout / HANDOUT)

Retired Baltimore County Circuit Judge Patrick Cavanaugh, who had a reputation for handing down tough but fair sentences to criminal offenders, died Dec. 14 of a heart attack while visiting family in Lexington, South Carolina. The Mays Chapel resident was 76.

“Pat was a lawyer’s judge,” said Judge William R. Evans, chief judge of the Orphans’ Court of Baltimore County and Judge Cavanaugh’s first cousin. “He was very fair, compassionate and understood the difficulties of the law. He was tough, but fair.”

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Retired Baltimore County Circuit Judge John F. Fader II is a longtime colleague and friend.

“Pat has been my great friend for so many years, and we served on the bench together and I knew him back when he practiced law,” Judge Fader said. “He was a great judge and had a sound legal mind. He loved life and he loved everything about being a judge and the law.”

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“Pat had a distinguished career on our bench, and his daughter Colleen is carrying on that tradition,” wrote Baltimore County Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill in an email.

Patrick Cavanaugh, who had no middle name, the son of James Cavanaugh, a Bethlehem Steel Corp. steelworker, and his wife, Edith Cavanaugh, a registered nurse, was born in Baltimore and raised in Dundalk.

After graduating from Towson Catholic High School, Judge Cavanaugh joined his father at Sparrows Point while attending night school at the University of Baltimore, from which he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1967, the same year he married the former Delores A. Donovan.

He worked as a sales representative for General Electric Co. from 1966 to 1972, and Harvey Hubbell Inc. in Northern Virginia from 1972 to 1974. While working in sales by day and raising a family, he drove daily from Manassas, Virginia, to Baltimore, where he studied law at night at the University of Baltimore.

Judge Cavanaugh earned his law degree and was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1974, and from 1974 until 2002 was a solo practitioner maintaining a general law practice in Dundalk, where he handled divorce, custody, property disposition and other domestic cases.

His first office was next door to the Dundalk District Court, where his uncle and mentor, District Judge William T. Evans, presided, family members said.

“Early in his career, Patrick became engaged in several notable cases, defending an accused murderer in his first jury trial, and travelling frequently to Puerto Rico in defense of an accused gunrunner,” according to a biographical profile prepared by his family.

“He quickly gained experience in both federal and state courts, became an active member of the Baltimore County Bar Association, and developed a reputation as a thorough, prepared, and knowledgeable advocate for his clients,” said the profile. “Understanding the needs of his mostly working class clientele, Patrick worked late hours so that his clients did not have to miss work to meet with him.”

In 2002, Judge Cavanaugh realized a lifetime dream when he was elected to the Baltimore County Circuit Court.

“In a little more than two years on the bench, the 61-year-old Dundalk native with a folksy manner and a quick Irish wit had earned a reputation for handing down serious punishments to defendants convicted of serious crimes — particularly violent criminals and drug dealers,” observed The Baltimore Sun in a 2005 article.

The newspaper reported that drug dealers were Judge Cavanaugh’s “pet peeve.”

In a celebrated 2005 case, Judge Cavanaugh sentenced Matthew Timothy McCullough, an 18-year-old former Randallstown High School student, to 100 years in prison for a shooting in the school’s parking lot after a charity basketball game that left one student partially paralyzed and three others wounded.

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“You, Mr. McCullough, are ... a suburban terrorist,” Judge Cavanaugh said. “You’re also a coward if you started all this over someone calling you a name. ... It appears to me that you have no conscience at all.”

Gregory Kane, a Sun columnist, wrote of Judge Cavanaugh in 2005, “In short, he’s my kind of judge.

“When it comes to handing out harsh sentences when harsh sentences are needed, Cavanaugh doesn’t flinch. He hands them out and lets the chips fall where they may,” he wrote.

“Pat was known as a tough sentencing judge earning the nickname ‘The Cavinator’ amongst courthouse wags, after the Arnold Schwarzenegger character,” Judge Cahill wrote in his email. “The truth is, Pat was in a long line of no-nonsense Baltimore County judges who made potential offenders think twice before committing a crime in our jurisdiction. But he was never, ever unfair, just thoughtful and tough.”

Upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70, Judge Cavanaugh retired in 2013, but continued to sit as a senior judge in circuit and district courts throughout the state. He had presided earlier this month in Salisbury.

In 2014, Judge Cavanaugh “officially moved for the investiture,” according to the Baltimore County Bar Association, of his daughter, Colleen A. Cavanaugh, a Cockeysville resident, to a judgeship on the Baltimore County Circuit Court.

According to the bar association, it was “what is believed to be the first time in Maryland history that a daughter ascended to the same bench once occupied by her father.”

Judge Cavanaugh occupies her father’s former chambers, family members said.

“Every time I go and visit Colleen in her chambers I see Pat. I often went there and very much enjoyed his company,” Judge Fader said.

An inveterate golfer, Judge Cavanaugh was a member and president of the Sparrows Point Country Club, where he caddied during his high school days. He was a member of the Ocean City Golf and Yacht Club. He enjoyed traveling and spending summers at his home on Bethany Beach, Delaware.

He was a member of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and “reveled in his Irish heritage,” family members said, and also enjoyed visiting Ireland.

He was a member of the Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks Lodge No. 469 in Towson.

“Pat was well-liked and the consummate gentleman,” Judge Fader said. “His death is a great loss, and it’s tough getting it our of your mind.”

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at noon Saturday at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church, 101 Church Lane, Cockeysville.

In addition to his wife of 52 years and his daughter, Judge Cavanaugh is survived by two other daughters, Kerry Cavanaugh Rice, a former WBAL-TV reporter, of Timonium, and Dr. Kelly Niermeier of Lexington, South Carolina; a sister, Cheryl Chizmar of Bel Air; and eight grandchildren.

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