Remembering the Vision of Chief Judge Robert F. Sweeney

The month of June 2010 brings with it for many of us events that will create a lasting memory and impression such as a high school or college commencement for the daughters and sons of later born “Baby Boomers.” It also is the time of the year for some of Maryland’s lawyers, judges and their families to journey to Ocean City for the annual meeting of the Maryland State Bar Association, where hopefully we’ll be able to enjoy the right combination of CLE and camaraderie to want to do it again. Later this month all of us, who are legal and/or political junkies will for the second summer in a row have front row seats for the political theater associated with the confirmation of a designated U.S Supreme Court Justice. This year that designated Justice of the Supreme Court is current Solicitor- General Elena Kagan.

                The later event has the potential to be even more dramatic and therefore more interesting than usual. Professor Kagan has written on the subject of the federal judicial confirmation process and specifically on Supreme Court Confirmation hearings, criticizing both U.S. Senators for not asking appropriately relevant and detailed questions and nominees such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg for refusing to answer questions regarding judicial philosophy and decision-making when they are asked.
I have been writing this column for almost four years. During that time four U.S. Supreme Court Justices, Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Alito, Justice Sotomayor and now soon to be Justice Kagan have  each starred in their own unique political drama supported by and all-star cast of U.S. Senators. I have written in this space on each of these occasions, editorially wishing for a discussion of the role that judges should play in our state and country as part of their confirmation process. I haven’t engaged in this exercise not out of naiveté, but rather in the hope that even though the role of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice in our society is obviously different than that of any other federal and certainly state court judge, since that distinction seems to get lost in these hearings, as for example when Chief Justice Roberts was not challenged when he compared the role of a judge and implicitly even a Supreme Court Justice to that of an “Umpire,” why not make the best of it and have the issue addressed by some of our best legal minds and constitutional scholars. Alas, however to no avail then and probably now.
                The issue however was directly addressed by one of the giants in the legal and judicial history of Maryland—Robert F. Sweeney (1926-1999).  His unique legacy is remembered here. He actually built from scratch a court—The District Court of Maryland. Robert F. Sweeney was sworn in as the first Chief Judge and at the time the only Judge of the District Court on May 5, 1971. On that day he promised, “Insofar as I am able, I shall attempt to make this court what people of Maryland are entitled to have it be: A court of integrity, a forum in which the personal and the property rights of all citizens can be freely and fairly adjudicated by judges of learning in the law—judges who are dedicated to the principle of equal justice under the law for all.”
                Robert F. Sweeney thereafter made the rest of his life’s work making that promise come true. The District Court was preceded by a patchwork quilt of courts and quasi- judicial administrative agencies.  Former Governor Marvin Mandel proposed the creation of The District Court as a reform measure and guided it through the Legislature. He then “persuaded” Robert F. Sweeney to make his life’s work making this reform real.
                Reform was badly and urgently needed. The reason Robert Sweeney needed to be “persuaded” to take control of this new court system and make it work was that its predecessor system of Trial Magistrate Courts, Peoples Court and Systems of Commissioners was as the Baltimore Sun editorially described them “dominated by politics and tainted by petty corruption.” Clearly that culture was not going to go away easily. As Governor Mandel said, “This was a gargantuan task that required an individual of exceptional ability.” He found that “individual with exceptional ability,” i.e., “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.”
                And go away the culture of corruption did! As Judge Sweeney himself in his typically earthy tone and language said in an interview upon his retirement, “There were judges who were racists, who had alcohol problems, who were wife beaters and who thought they had found the greatest 10- 2 job in the world. I outlived the bastards, the whole collection of them.”
                That view, remarkably, in this politically polarized world that we live in remains universally acknowledged. As former Republican State Senator and Court of Special Appeals Judge John J. Bishop said on the occasion of Chief Judge Sweeney’s retirement, “…the speed with which you were able to organize the District Court …was surpassed only by the honesty and integrity that you brought to the District Court- such a stark contrast to what the District Court succeeded.” “It was probably the most inspiring of all judicial reforms effected over the last century or so” said former Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy speaking from a national perspective.
                Former Delegate Timothy F. Maloney probably best captured and articulated the public legacy of Chief Judge Robert Sweeney, his friend and mentor, when he said upon his retirement, “Bob’s probably affected the everyday experience of Marylanders in the courtroom more than any person in this century.”
                There was also another legacy left by the late Chief Judge Sweeney, the personal and with it the political. He inspired many opinion-makers, judges, elected officials, civic and political leaders and most important to him ordinary citizens and friends with his words and actions. I was privileged to be among them. More on that next time.

Leave a Reply