Partners In Life, Colleagues On The Bench

September 01, 1991|By Mary Corey

Since Diana Gribbon Motz became a judge four months ago, only one citizen has written to her.

And, boy, was that guy steaming. Page after handwritten page, he chided her for a recent decision on a controversial case. As if his words weren't emphatic enough, he ended every sentence with angry exclamation points.

The only problem was, the letter wasn't intended for Judge Diana Motz. It was meant for her husband, U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz.

"It was my first and only piece of mail from a citizen, and it wasn't even for me," Ms. Motz says with a good-natured laugh.

For the Honorable Judges Motz, life has gotten more intriguing -- and more confusing -- since Ms. Motz was named to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. But while she and her husband now share the same title, some say that's where the similarities end.

As they sit talking in their house in Homeland, they are indeed a study in contrasts. She's energetic and outspoken, quick with a quip as she fidgets animatedly on a love seat in the sun room. Mr. Motz, meanwhile, sits quietly in a wicker chair, his hands crossed like the minister that a teacher once told him he would be. He wears the shy, uneasy expression of a pupil who's afraid he might be called on in class.

The couple are worlds apart politically, as well. "When we were first married, we had some wild political fights," says Ms. Motz, who gives her age only as fortysomething. "I was a liberal Democrat, and Fred was certainly the most conservative person I knew. I didn't know there were people, except old people, who were this conservative."

She glances over at her husband, who is 48. "I grew up thinking John Kennedy was a great hero, and you grew up thinking Richard Nixon was one. Can this be true?" she says, and the two laugh heartily.

While differences between them abound, they do share one important quality: Both have spent the last twenty-some years earning the respect of the legal and judicial establishments.

"I've spent my life in the Maryland legal community, and they would be on a short list of the best lawyers I know," says Stephen H. Sachs, Maryland's former attorney general, who has worked with both of them.

Ms. Motz has built a reputation as a forceful, persuasive litigator. In 1981, she attracted national attention for handling the state's case against former vice president Spiro T. Agnew in which he paid back thousands for kickbacks he received while governor. She also has tried a First Amendment case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, a narrow 5-to-4 loss that she still laments nearly 10 years later.

Mr. Motz, likewise, has been involved in some of the state's most illustrious trials. As Maryland's U.S. Attorney, he handled the trial of Maurice D. "Peanut" King, the man reputed to have led the most profitable heroin ring in East Baltimore. As a judge, he has presided over the much-publicized recent proxy fight for Baltimore Bancorp.

Those who know Fred Motz say his demeanor can be deceiving. Mr. Sachs recalls meeting him more than 20 years ago: "He was quiet and deferential and mannerly, and I remember thinking or wondering: 'Is this guy really going to be a trial lawyer? Is he noisy enough?'

"In some ways, the first impression is misleading. In combat, he can be very fierce. Anybody who has done battle against him would know that."

It would have been easy for the Motzes to parlay their professional success into social prominence. But instead of attending charity balls, they're more likely to spend their weekends at home playing Scrabble with their two children, Daniel, 15, and Catherine, 20.

"There's nothing trendy about them," Mr. Sachs says. "It would ++ not surprise me if neither one of them knows what or where the Polo Grill is."

In conversation, they make it clear that family is their No. 1 priority. "We're pretty straight," Ms. Motz says. "I think some would say too straight for our own good. . . . I don't know that we've taken a vacation longer than a weekend without the kids in 15 years."

During dinner and family vacations, conversation often centers around law and politics -- sometimes to the disdain of Daniel, who began bringing his Walkman on long car rides this summer, rather than listen to heated discussions of Thurgood Marshall's retirement.

So far it's Catherine, a history student at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, who shows signs of following in her parents' footsteps. This summer she worked as a paralegal for a local firm.

Like her own daughter, Diana Motz was following family tradition when she became a lawyer. The elder daughter of legendary Washington litigator, Daniel M. Gribbon, she was raised in Washington and attended Vassar College in New York, where she majored in history.

At that time, "I thought Baltimore was a place you drove through on your way to New York or Boston. I didn't know it was a place people lived," she says.

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