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Md. appeals court chief judge nearing retirement

Monday - 7/9/2012, 10:35am  ET

By STEVE LASH
The Daily Record of Baltimore

BALTIMORE (AP) - The final year of Robert M. Bell's tenure as chief judge of Maryland's top court began Friday, when he turned 69 in a state where the constitution requires jurists to retire at 70.

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell has served on the Court of Appeals since 1991 and has led it since 1996.

Thus, the clock has started for Gov. Martin O'Malley to name the first new Court of Appeals chief judge since 1996.

"A year out is not too early at all to be thinking of this (appointment), because others are," said Parris N. Glendening, the former Maryland governor who appointed Bell chief judge 16 years ago. "Of all the various appointments that I made, that was the one that was most intensely lobbied, discussed."

The intensity is strong because the opportunity is so rare.

The Court of Appeals has only had two leaders during the past 40 years: Bell and his predecessor, Robert C. Murphy.

By contrast, Maryland has had seven governors during that span, including Acting Gov. Blair Lee III from 1977 to 1979.

Former Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis, who has written extensively on Maryland politics, said the long tenure of chief judges speaks well of the state's court system.

"We've had a couple of generations of relative stability," said Willis, who served as secretary from 1995 to 2003. "That's one of the strengths of the Maryland judiciary."

O'Malley, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.

"The governor is fully aware of the age limit and the requirement that a replacement be made, but we don't discuss the process at this point," Raquel Guillory said.

Glendending, however, recalled six or seven legal advisers telling him to "look for a slightly younger person" _ someone who could serve another 15 to 20 years _ when Murphy was nearing his forced-retirement age.

The advisers also pressed for someone with appellate court experience. A judge with a paper trail of opinions is "a known entity" who inspires public confidence, Glendening said.

With those factors as his guide, Glendening chose Bell, who was 53 years old and had been on the Court of Appeals for five years when he became chief on Oct. 23, 1996.

Murphy was even younger, 46, when then-Gov. Marvin Mandel chose him in 1972. Murphy served on the high court for 24 years, until his forced retirement at age 70 on Oct. 9, 1996.

Murphy was a bit of an exception, in that he had never served on the Court of Appeals before being made its chief. Instead, he was serving as chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals.

Of the last 16 chief judges, dating to 1867, only three judges were not on the Court of Appeals when they were named its chief: Murphy; Frederick W. Brune IV, who served from 1954 to 1964; and Simon E. Sobeloff, 1952 to 1954.

And of the three, only Brune was in private practice when then-Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin appointed him chief, based on a review of the Maryland Manual On-Line.

If the combination of age and experience on the top court are deciding factors, the most logical choices would be judges Mary Ellen Barbera, 60; Sally D. Adkins, 62; Clayton Greene Jr., 61; or Robert N. McDonald, 60, said University of Baltimore School of Law professor Byron L. Warnken.

The remaining tenures of the other two sitting judges _ Glenn T. Harrell Jr., 67, and Lynne A. Battaglia, 66 _ would be too short to make a significant mark, Warnken added.

"A combination of ages and that we have never had a female (chief judge) makes Barbera or Adkins an obvious potential pick," said Warnken. He added that Greene has the distinction of serving on all four levels of the Maryland judiciary.

McDonald, by contrast, only joined the Court of Appeals in January, and that lack of experience might discourage O'Malley from appointing him, Warnken said.

"McDonald is still the unknown," he said. "He has been an appellate judge for less than one year."

O'Malley could also look to the Court of Special Appeals, as Mandel did in appointing Murphy. However, the appointee would have to be from Baltimore, as he or she would be taking Bell's 6th Appellate Circuit seat on the high court.

That residency requirement would exclude Court of Special Appeals Chief Judge Peter Krauser, who hails from Prince George's County, but not judges Albert J. Matricciani Jr., 65; Shirley M. Watts, 53; or Samuel R. Berger, also 53.

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