May 01, 2013

The Maryland Judiciary In Pursuit of Justice

By Chief Judge Robert M. Bell

Maryland judges must retire at age 70, and, as I near the predetermined end of my judicial tenure, I have been asked to provide personal reflections about my time as chief judge and chronicle some of “my” achievements. This is difficult for me—while there have indeed been strides taken and goals achieved, they are the accomplishments of many, many dedicated professionals in the third branch of government, serving the public, rather than of any one individual.

The initiatives and programs presented in this article reflect a set of fundamental guiding principles that I adopted as I began my service as chief judge in 1996. They, which continue to guide the work of the Maryland Judiciary, include fuller access to justice; improved case expedition and timeliness; equality, fairness, and integrity in the judicial process; branch independence and accountability; and restored public trust and confidence.

I think that if I offer some personal history, it may provide some insight into a professional life dedicated, hopefully, to these principles.

Like most of us, the first major influence in my life was my mother. My mother grew up on a farm in North Carolina and had been a share-cropper before she moved to Baltimore with my brothers and me. She had little formal education, perhaps third grade, but she had a strong work ethic and an iron determination that her children were going to make something of themselves. She never faltered in insisting that we get the education that she was denied.

My choice of career was made early—I decided I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I, as a young boy, started reading Erle Stanley Gardner’s “Perry Mason” stories. I was attracted to the idea of helping people and to fighting for the law and for “right” versus “wrong.”

When I was growing up, Baltimore was a city divided by race. I grew up in East Baltimore, and my mother tried to protect us from the negative aspects of segregation by keeping us secure in our own close-knit community of black stores, barbers, teachers, and other community resources. In 1960, when I was in the 11th grade and student government president at Dunbar High School, I was approached by Morgan State College students, who were recruiting participants for a planned antidiscrimination demonstration to be held on the last day of school in downtown Baltimore. I and a number of my fellow students agreed. After picketing several establishments, about a dozen of us “sat in” at one of the restaurants. When we refused to leave when advised by police to do so, we were arrested. We were charged, tried, and convicted of trespassing.

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