The ABA Justice Center established the John Marshall Award in 2001 to recognize individuals who have made a positive national impact on the justice system. Past recipients include Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the late U.S. Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama and former Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania.
Over his 40-year legal career, Bell is one of very few judges to have served at all four levels of Maryland’s courts and is the first African-American to lead the Maryland judiciary. As chief judge, he oversees a court system that handles more than 2 million cases a year, with a budget of $450 million and a workforce of more than 4,000 employees.
Early in his tenure as head of the Maryland court system, Bell outlined what he termed his guiding judicial principles: fuller access to justice; improved case expedition and timeliness; equality, fairness and integrity in the judicial process; judicial branch independence and accountability; and restored public trust and confidence in the court system.
Bell’s innovative approach to the law is exemplified in his response to the housing foreclosure crisis. In 2008, he sent a letter to each attorney in Maryland asking for volunteers to help homeowners at risk. More than 200 attorneys accepted and signed up for the first in what has become a series of continuing legal education programs about foreclosure. The results included the Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono Project and a hotline for troubled homeowners.
Raised in racially divided Baltimore, Bell participated in a sit-in at a Baltimore restaurant in 1960. He was convicted of a misdemeanor, a conviction later vacated by the court he would one day lead, the Maryland Court of Appeals. (Lawyers in the civil disobedience case included future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Robert C. Murphy, who was to become Bell’s colleague on the Maryland Court of Appeals and the chief judge who Bell succeeded.)
After high school, Bell graduated from Morgan State College (now University) and Harvard Law School. After a brief stint in private practice, Bell was appointed to a series of increasingly higher level judicial positions: Baltimore City District Court, Baltimore City Circuit Court, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and then the Maryland Court of Appeals, first as a judge and, starting in 1996, as chief judge.
Bell will accept the award at the ABA Annual Meeting in August in San Francisco.
Those eligible for the John Marshall Award include any individual responsible for extraordinary improvement to the administration of justice in the categories of judicial independence, justice system reform or public awareness about the justice system.
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