Tireless Judge Ciotola, 71, must retire his swift gavel

June 28, 1991|By Ann LoLordo

In the office of the administrative judge of Baltimore's District Court, two desks and two credenzas have been pushed together to form a large rectangle of dark wood on which sit stacks of legal journals, court papers and law books.

Colleagues of Judge Joseph A. Ciotola say it's easy to understand why the stacks are so tall and the space to hold them so large: Judge Ciotola, who arrives for work at 5:30 a.m. and leaves well after the last case is heard, oversees Maryland's busiest and largest lower court system.

And now, after nearly a decade in the job, tireless Joe Ciotola is resigning in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld state laws subjecting both elected and appointed judges to mandatory retirement ages. Judge Ciotola, whose

brand of swift justice helped unclog court dockets over the years and, most recently, ease the jail overcrowding crisis of July 1989, will celebrate his 72nd birthday in September. Maryland judges must retire at the age of 70.

"In 35 years of state service, I do not believe that I have ever met a public official who was the equal of Joe Ciotola," said Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. "I have called upon him time and time again for difficult, extraordinary assignments. He never said no, . . . he never lost his zest and his optimism, and the finished product was always an exercise in reasoned craftsmanship."

Judge Ciotola said he had no intention of retiring until he learned of the Supreme Court ruling this week. He underwent heart surgery lastsummer and again this spring, but both times he returned to work with the same bouncy spring in his step that takes him from courtroom to courtroom in the Wabash Avenue District Court building.

"The repair of the aorta didn't do it. And the bypass didn't do it," said Judge Ciotola, whose last day on the job is July 9. "But the Supreme Court, on a 7-2 vote, did. I'm 71. That's only a number. I feel 17, thanks to the Lord. I regret leaving in the middle of all the things I envisioned the chief [judges] and myself and the associate [judges] could do for this court."

Judge Robert F. Sweeney, chief of the District Court, said he has not yet decided on Judge Ciotola's successor, "but I do not believe he can ever be replaced."

Joe Ciotola was working downtown as a real estate lawyer when he was appointed to the District Court in 1976. Gary Bernstein, a Baltimore lawyer who was then a city prosecutor, remembered the day he first encountered the judge. Mr. Bernstein arrived early for work to review the overnight cases.

"The desk sergeant says, 'We have a visiting judge. He's been here since 7:30 a.m.,' " said Mr. Bernstein, who found Judge Ciotola going through every file "to review not the facts of the case, but the nature of the charges, so he would know what the issue of law would be."

When the judge finished with the cases, he turned to a law book where he read a chapter on criminal evidence. "He read a chapter of evidence each morning to make sure he was fresh on it. It was one of the most wonderful days," said Mr. Bernstein, who added that he later asked that Judge Ciotola be assigned to his court for six months.

"The guy was an anachronism. He enjoyed working and doing a good job no matter how long it took or who he was dealing with," added Gary Woodruff, a public defender who worked in the District Court. "He was a judge who believed that every case was important, every defendant was important, every victim was important and he put that above everything else."

Since 1982, Judge Ciotola has overseen a court that has 23 judges, more than 200 staff, and a caseload of civil, criminal and traffic cases that generates more than 200,000 trials a year. When requests for jury trials by District Court defendants nearly paralyzed the higher, Circuit Court system several years ago, Judge Ciotola started an experimental "instant jury trial" program that significantly reduced the jury trial requests, prosecutors and public defenders say.

And when overcrowding at the Baltimore City Jail reached a crisis in the summer of 1989, he convened weekly meetings of criminal justice officials to weed out cases that could be expedited. He issued a ruling to court commissioners that kept dozens of jail beds empty by virtually guaranteeing that persons charged with minor crimes would be released without bail.

In a continuing effort to keep the jail population down, Judge Ciotola ordered Sunday morning bail review hearings over three-day holiday weekends -- the only court in the state to do so.

"When people work together and don't put obstacles in front of each other, things move," Judge Ciotola said.

During the five years she served as chief of the District Court prosecutors, Barbara B. Waxman began nearly every day by meeting with Judge Ciotola. One snowy morning last year stands out in her memory. At 6:30 a.m., Judge Ciotola called from his courthouse office to tell her the court would be closed that day. An hour later he called back.

A Florida man had arrived in Baltimore on the red-eye and taken a cab to the Wabash courthouse where he was to stand trial for a traffic case that could have landed him jail, the judge told Ms. Waxman.

"He asked me if I could get in," recalled Ms. Waxman, now a District Court judge. "I told him I'd go outside and start shoveling. I got in about 9:30 a.m. He put on his robe, with his galoshes [still] on, and I proceeded to nol process the case. He was not going to turn this man away."

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