FOR YEARS the old magistrate courts were a fixture of Baltimore neighborhoods. These courts, a forerunner of today's District Court system, were where criminal and civil cases started and where neighbors brought grievances against neighbors.
Like today's judges, the magistrates were appointed by the governor, but they didn't go through the thorough screening of today -- and they didn't have to be lawyers. They were usually friends of the governor -- or friends of friends. They could be merchants, contractors, insurance salesmen and, yes, even lawyers. Though they heard as many as 8,000 cases a year, they basically worked part-time, seeking to mete out justice amid the accusations, pleadings and alibis of people whose lives somehow had broken down.
Judge Marshall A. Levin, a police court magistrate during the 1950s, recalls that, "the magistrates wore no robes, they held court seven days a week and were paid only $4,500 a year. Yet they genuinely served the needs of neighborhood people."
"Your honor, may I explain?"
"Yes, I think you should. You are charged with shoplifting a coat. Shoplifting is a very serious offense."
"But I wasn't shoplifting, your honor. I took that coat off the rack and was headed for the door only because the light's better there. You see, I'm color-sensitive."
Then there was the woman who had taken a knife to her boyfriend. "I did not mean to cut him. I had the knife out and his head got in the way."
And a man who was arrested brandishing a huge butcher knife and heading for his neighbor's house: "Your honor," he explained, "I was only taking the knife in to be sharpened."
As is the case today, some disputes were easily settled. But others called for lengthy and serious adjudication. According to Levin, "the magistrates had it in their power to impose any sentence that was not considered cruel and unusual punishment. They could, in serious cases, sentence up to 20 years and more. But in fact, most of their sentences ran 10 days, 30 days -- sometimes six months."
Everybody knew the system wasn't serving the community well. The "judges" weren't really schooled in the law and their "courtrooms" were often loosely run.
Once Magistrate Joseph Kolodny was spotted hearing cases while wearing an earplug -- and Kolodny wasn't hard-of-hearing. It turned out he was tuned to an Orioles game. A reporter made a small study: Kolodny heard three drunk cases and one arson case during the exact time it took the O's to overtake the Red Sox -- and go on to win, 3 to 1.
Not surprisingly, there was pressure for reform. As early as 1953, the chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, Simon Sobeloff, was complaining, "this is not a system, it is chaos." Six years later, in 1959, the legislature finally put an end to the magistrates and made provision for staffing the courts with full-time judges. Thus the District Court system was born.
Among the magistrates holding court over the years were: Vernon Weisand, Avrum Rifkin, Stanley Richardson, Henry Louis Rogers, Howard L. Aaron, Martin Yamin, Richard Rudolf, Everett Lane and Charlotte Main.
"Your honor, I cannot stand all the shouting next door! I can't eat. I can't sleep. Make her stop!"
"Sir, I am not shouting. I am singing! I am an opera singer. I studied under the great Rosa Ponselle."
"I say it's shouting!"
"And I say it's singing!"
The judge buried his head in his hands. He was heard to plead, with defeat in his voice: "Ladies, ladies, ladies . . ."