A few weeks ago, John Casteen III, the President of the University of Virginia, (Total Disclosure –My Alma Mater) addressed its graduating class of 2010 on the beautiful lawn in Charlottesville as follows: “Don’t sweat the small stuff—Seek the company of those with vision, ambition and worth….to become mentors and to test friendships on the basis of genuine human worth, not titles, birth, wealth or appearance.” I and many other judges, lawyers and other ordinary citizens in this state and country in our search for such company had the good fortune to succeed. We had the opportunity to have as a friend and to be led by the late Robert F. Sweeney (1926-1999).
Judge Sweeney was the first Chief Judge and the universally acknowledged architect of the District Court of Maryland. In my last column I wrote of his public legacy. My purpose here is to memorialize the personal and political heritage and message that he left us all which is so important as we cope with a much faster moving complex world in the 21st century.
Robert F. Sweeney was a person who embodied the qualities that University of Virginia President Casteen suggested we should all look for in the people whom we select to lead us. Equally important he possessed the “genuine human worth” that made him a valuable friend whose company we sought as often as possible. As Governor Mandel described him when he recruited him to lead the District Court in its formative years—“An individual with exceptional ability, … a combination of charm and determination ….an ability to work with people and to organize, to laugh, to joke, but at the same time be strong-willed and controlling.”
Robert Sweeney’s unique combination of charm, organizational skills, compassion and pragmatism were on display very early in his career. In 1959 as a reward for some work for a Northeast Baltimore Democratic political Organization he was appointed to a magistrate’s seat on the old Baltimore Housing Court. There he was known for his sharp criticism of slumlords. But Judge Sweeney also set up what would now be described as a “Problem – Solving Court” before anyone even used that term or knew what it meant. He established a series of courses to instruct people who appeared in his court on how to be better tenants.
Later in his career as the second ranking member of the Maryland Attorney General’s Office. Robert Sweeney began a search which would occupy him off and on for the rest of his life including the time later in his career when he administered the District Court of Maryland. That search was magnificently described in the Yom Hashoah Lecture which Judge Sweeney was chosen to deliver on April 22, 1990at Baltimore Hebrew University. The title of that speech was “Where Were the Lawyers – Where Were the Judges? German Justice 1935-1945.”
In that extraordinary address Judge Sweeney recounted his search for the answer to the question as he put it, “how it was possible in that civilized society [Germany] for a man to come into power in January 1933 and within weeks by edict or by law, set about to disenfranchise and dehumanize a half a million citizens of the nation that he governed” and then to follow that with the holocaust. “Where were the lawyers –Where were the judges?”, he rhetorically asked. He then confided to a spellbound audience that “the passage of forty-five years and my own arrival at an age where death is no longer a stranger has done nothing to ease the shock or still my fury.”
On a personal level, he was a great friend to so many of us, but particularly to his lifelong friend, Robert C. Murphy, the former Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. They had a close professional and personal relationship for 50 years, first in the Maryland Attorney General’s Office and then at the top of the Maryland Judiciary. The almost half a century of banter between these best of friends not only was fun for them, but also provided joy and entertainment for those of us who were lucky enough to be in the same room with them to see and hear it on many occaisions.
That friendship did not stand in the way of Judge Sweeney targeting Judge Murphy and his colleagues with pointed but good natured humor laced with irony. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Judge Sweeney invented the fictional character of “Mrs. Bessie Williams of Shadyside, Maryland.” In a series of letters to Chief Judge Murphy purportedly from “Mrs. Bessie Williams” which showed copies at various times to “President “Jimmy Carter”, “President Ronald Reagan “, “The Reverend Doctor Jerry Falwell”, other politicians, and newspapers, ghostwriter Robert Sweeney protested the “new bronze relief of a bare-breasted Lady Justice in the lobby of the Courts Appeals Building in Annapolis.”
The first of these letters which invoked the memory of her late husband “Pastor Williams” stated “I think it’s terrible that tax money should be used by seven dirty old men [the courts 7 all male judges at the time] to put up that sinful structure.” During the next two years at various times “Mrs. Bessie Williams” complained about spirituous beverages being provided to Maryland judges at a recent party and “a bakery in Annapolis selling dirty cookies.” Finally after two years with Judge Murphy thoroughly rattled by the letters, Judge Sweeney confessed to his friend.
There are other memories of this great and good man whose professional and personal life illustrates the combination of qualities we should continue to look for in our leaders and our friends. He took his work seriously and himself less so. Former Delegate Tim Maloney recalls Judge Sweeney quietly slipped photographs of his grandchildren into several cornerstones of District Courthouses around the state. He also once brought his two grandsons to the legislative office building to protest complete with hand-lettered placards against a proposed cut in his court systems budget.
He died July 7, 1999. Before he died former Delegate and Commissioner of Financial Regulation, Mary Louise Preis spoke for all of his friends and colleagues. When she said, “You are ….a kind man who has surely left a mark of excellence on his life’s work. I admire your wisdom and wit and most of all your vision and perseverance.” So should we all- now and in the future.