'One of a kind' lawyer Kaplan slows down just a bit at 83 'Living legend' cuts colorful swath

October 11, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

That puff of color shuffling down the courthouse corridor i Morris Kaplan.

One day he wears his pink sport coat, green pants and yellow socks. The next day it's his blue sport coat, lime tie and red pants. His notes, messages and court documents -- his entire file cabinet -- are stuffed into his pockets.

It's an unusual look for a lawyer. Then again, Morris Kaplan is an unusual lawyer.

He is 83, stooped, frail, has thin white hair and a profile like the Old Man of the Mountain. He's the most recognizable figure in the courthouses of Baltimore.

"They always called me the busiest lawyer in town," Mr. Kaplan says, this day wearing red plaid pants. "I've had all the poor clients; that's always been the case. I had the greatest volume for any individual lawyer in town."

For 62 years he has been a working lawyer in the city. He has defended robbers and murderers with a wit and charm that endeared him to nearly everyone.

"He's an incredible character," says lawyer Alan L. Cohen. "He's one of a kind," says Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward J. Angeletti. "He is truly a living legend," says Vickie Wash, an assistant state's attorney.

But age is catching up with Morris Kaplan.

In July, the month he turned 83, his name was placed on the roster of inactive lawyers. That meant that Mr. Kaplan, the state's oldest criminal lawyer, could no longer try cases in court.

He didn't want to become inactive but had little choice. Clients and the Attorney Grievance Commission had accused him of failing to appear for trials, failing to file one appeal and two motions for reconsideration of sentence, and failing to keep records of fee agreements.

In the face of disciplinary action by the Maryland Court of Appeals, possibly even disbarment, Mr. Kaplan placed himself on the inactive list. A short time later, the Court of Appeals issued its own order rendering Mr. Kaplan inactive.

Mr. Kaplan acknowledges that he has slowed down physically. He suffers from asthma. He has an arthritic neck that prevents his head from turning his head left or right and an arthritic back that prevents him from looking up.

In August last year he fell in a courtroom and broke his left hip. He returned to work in about six months with a walker, and now he walks with a cane.

But mentally, he says, he is as fit as ever. He sits in his office and counters the charges against him by the Attorney Grievance Commission. He acknowledges that he may have made one mistake, missing trials of a client whose trial dates were listed under an alias.

He says he is too short-winded to try cases before juries but that he could still try a case or two before a judge. He might even petition the Court of Appeals for reinstatement.

"I'm going to die with my boots on," he says. "I'll be here till the man puts me in the box. That's why I don't ride on Reisterstown Road if I can help it. That's where Levinson's got his funeral home."

"Inactively active"

Mr. Kaplan describes himself now as "inactively active." He rides to work every day with his son Michael, also a lawyer. They share an office with Michael's son, Donald, on the 13th floor of the Court Square Building downtown.

One of his other sons, Marty, runs a methadone maintenance program for heroin addicts, a program Mr. Kaplan started three years ago.

"I can do anything but try a case," Mr. Kaplan says. "I'm doing all the office work now. I'm the consultant."

He still interviews clients and takes phone calls for new business. He walks to the Clarence Mitchell Jr. Courthouse or Courthouse East nearly every day, running errands or visiting friends. Women hug him, young men shake his hand, and people with relatives in jail still call his name, hoping the wise old lawyer can get their loved ones home.

He has gotten home more than his share.

Judge Angeletti and Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan say Morris Kaplan never forgot an important fact or circumstance and that he always cut right to the heart of the matter.

"He didn't bother with the law very much; he didn't cite a lot of cases," Judge Kaplan says. "He would simply try to convince the jury that it didn't happen or that his defendant wasn't involved with it."

He didn't always succeed.

One time, Judge Kaplan says, Mr. Kaplan defended several teen-agers accused of stealing meat. They were caught in the Inner Harbor late at night with plastic bags of meat.

"Morris made the argument that they were out for a midnight swim," Judge Kaplan says. "And the meat just happened to be there."

Sometimes you can laugh a case out of court, and sometimes you can't, the judge says. "The floating meat was just too much."

Alan L. Cohen, a criminal lawyer who started out as a prosecutor, remembers the first time he came up against Mr. Kaplan.

A man and woman had broken up, and the woman claimed the man later threatened her and her new boyfriend with a sawed-off shotgun. Mr. Kaplan represented the man with the shotgun.

"Morris knew everybody"

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