Curtain lowering on Curley's remarkable, riotous show

Stories will follow 'colorful creature into retirement

September 16, 1990|By JAY APPERSON | JAY APPERSON,Staff writer

He looks like a tough old bird, this Judge Curley.

Leaning forward, he glares over the specs perched near the end of his narrow nose. Sixty-seven-year-old Tom Curley's hair, mostly gray with a few stubborn streaks of black, is wet-combed back. Mark Twain eyebrows climb toward the ceiling while he cocks his head.

The look says: "Don't play games with me, friend." In fact, that's a favorite expression, an attention-getter delivered in a booming baritone with an accent born in Medford, Mass.

Hearing the lamest of excuses, he rolls his eyes, sighs, shakes his head, glares again.

If you're a defendant, the Honorable Thomas J. Curley Jr. is enough to scare the hell out of you. But look closely and you'll see Curley, in the midst of his tough-judge routine, sometimes seems to be suppressing a smile.

"It's all just drama," said T. Joseph Touhey Jr., a Glen Burnie attorney and longtime friend of Curley's. "Beyond a doubt, he's the master of the pregnant pause, the dramatic stare. Timing is everything. He can take the simplest sentence and turn it into a one-minute extravaganza, with the arching of the eyebrows for dramatic emphasis.

"He's one of the most colorful creatures in the state, bar none."

Annapolis attorney Richard C. Goodwin said, "A lot of people don't like him, but he's one of the most sensitive judges. I think they misunderstand his abruptness.

"He's flamboyant. He's outspoken, "said William Katcef, an assistant state's attorney who heads the office's Annapolis District Court unit and has appeared before Curley for a decade. "He is extremely entertaining."

Entertaining? The show "Judge Curley Presiding over District Court" is often, in a word, hilarious. "

But the show, which opened 26 years ago when he was sworn in as chief judge of the old Anne Arundel County People's Court, is nearing the end of its run. Curley, the last of the original People's Court judges still sitting on Maryland's District Court bench, said last week he is stepping down. After Feb. 28, 1991. Curley will appear on the bench only occasionally, filling in for vacationing judges.

Robert F. Sweeney, chief judge of the District Court of Maryland, estimated that Curley has heard more than 125,000 cases in his years on the bench. "Ours is where the action is. It's life in the judicial trenches and it is his cup of tea."

"You'd think his ears would fall from just the sheer fatigue with all he's had to listen to," Touhey said. Even Curley admitted, "You've got to like it. If you don't like it, you could never hack it."

As it turns out, Curley is considered a fairly even-handed judge, willing to cut you a break, give you a second chance. In fact, he's been the target of newspaper editorials charging him with being too easy on drunken drivers. An Aug. 27 editorial in The Capital accused him of being "unbelievably lenient."

But he stands by his sentencing philosophy, declaring that studies have shown probation before judgment to be more effective than incarceration in curbing recidivism. He keeps a tally of drunken driving cases he handles.

His supporters consider the criticism uninformed and unfair. Touhey wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the "witless" editorial.

Assistant State's Attorney Trevor A. Kiessling says, "He's very much a people's judge. He truly has an understanding of what life is all about. The old line about we're all human and we all make mistakes - he seems to truly understand that."

Jonas D. Legum, who in the past 13 years has appeared before Curley as a prosecutor and, later, a defense attorney, said, "He has a compassion for people and he understands why people do things." He added that Curley does come down hard on violent offenders.

Curley said he decided to retire over the Labor Day weekend, and he made it official in a letter mailed Monday to Chief Judge Sweeney. In an interview last week, Curley said he began to consider retiring during a trip last spring to northern Italy that left him "mesmerized."

Curley - or "Curli," as his name is spelled by his fellow members of a social club known as the Italian Business-men's Association - recalled the "great cultural splendors" he had seen on his trip, and he said he's going back next April.

"It's been no secret over the years I have a strong affinity for Italian culture and the Italian language, to the point that I have studied the language," said Curley, a second-generation Irishman. "For some reason, I've always had this drawing to all things Italian. As a kid, spaghetti was my favorite meal."

Indeed, if there is anything Tom Curley is known for in county legal circles, it's his love of Italian culture. Oh sure, he's always been the type to throw himself into his hobbies - for a while it was photography, then it was opera - but friends say nothing has consumed him like his passion for Italy.

Touhey calls him a "true Renaissance man, a sort of Byron-in-the-rough."

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