Judge James Macgill set standard Retired jurist dead of cancer at 80

June 30, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Word of the death of James Macgill, former chief judge of Maryland's 5th Circuit Court, brought poignant reflection throughout the Howard County Courthouse this week.

Upon learning that he had died of cancer at 80 at his Mount Airy home Sunday night, those who knew him, worked with him or tried cases before him during his 26 years on the bench, paused to reminisce about "Jamie" -- a man they said set a judicial standard not only for Howard County, but for the state.

"He is the best trial judge I ever went before," said Ellicott City attorney Thomas E. Lloyd. "He made the parties and attorneys feel it was their courtroom, and that he was a very neutral observer and umpire."

"Win or lose, you felt you had your day in court," said Circuit Court Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. "He was an outstanding judge -- very, very intelligent, an exceptional writer of opinions. I'm really going to miss him."

Mr. Lloyd agreed: "He was a great scholar. He considered everything fully. Rarely were his decisions overturned."

Judge Macgill combined legal acumen with kindness and concern for everyone, especially so-called little people, friends say.

"He was so polite and courteous on the bench," Mr. Lloyd said. "He made even the most junior attorneys, the most inexperienced members of the bar feel welcome. He was never short or curt or offensive to even the most inept of lawyers."

"He was one of the greatest gentlemen I have ever known," said former Circuit Court Clerk C. Merritt Pumphrey. The judge was "all business" during the day, Mr. Pumphrey said, but after 5 p.m., when some jury trials were held over, he and Mr. Pumphrey would sit and talk.

"They were some of the most enjoyable moments of my career," Mr. Pumphrey said.

Sheriff Michael A. Chiuchiolo, who as a young Howard County police officer testified before the judge, said he was a "fantastic jurist, a gentleman from the word go. He was always willing to give advice or answer questions about why the decision went the way it did, going step by step over the points of law."

When Judge Macgill hired the late Ambrose Cross as a bailiff in 1976, he personally taught Mr. Cross the different aspects of the role, including a "hear ye, hear ye" chant to announce the arrival of the judge. Keenly aware of the judge's well-developed sense of humor, Mr. Cross one day decided to imitate comedian Flip Wilson and announced to the court, "Here come da judge."

Judge Macgill was not amused.

He called Mr. Cross into his chambers for a private scolding. "He reminded me he did not teach me to do that," Mr. Cross said in an interview years later. "I slipped up that day."

Born in Baltimore in 1912, Judge Macgill was a direct descendant of the Rev. James Macgill, who in the 1700s became first rector of Christ Episcopal Church on Oakland Mills Road. He grew up in the family home -- now Kings Contrivance Restaurant -- on Athol Farm and attended Donaldson School in Ilchester -- now Trinity Preparatory School.

"He was a good friend of my father's," said Howard County Councilman Charles C. Feaga. "He was introduced to me as a child as Young James. I remember him as a very wise and kind person who seemed to know everything. I was not surprised when he became a judge."

Mr. Feaga said he was amused in court one time when a lawyer was taking great pains to make sure the judge knew the location of an obscure country road that was the site of an accident.

"I hauled turkey feed over that road growing up," the judge told the attorney.

Following his graduation from the Johns Hopkins University in 1934 with a bachelor's degree in literature and languages, Judge Macgill attended law school at night at the University of Maryland, graduating in 1939.

Unable to enlist in the Army because of poor eyesight, Judge Macgill joined the American Field Service and became a volunteer ambulance driver with the British army, serving in Syria, Libya, India and Burma.

After the war, Judge Macgill returned to Ellicott City to practice law. In 1948, he became Howard County's first zoning commissioner, and in 1951, he became the county's first planning commissioner.

Gov. Theodore McKeldin appointed him a Circuit Court judge in 1954 -- a position to which he was twice re-elected. He retired in 1980.

The judge devoted much of his retirement time to his prize-winning wood-carving and sculpture, an avocation he began in 1956 under the tutelage of renowned sculptor Reuben Kramer. Mr. Kramer sculpted a bust of Judge Macgill that is displayed behind the witness chair in the ceremonial courtroom in the county courthouse.

It is an appropriate location. The courtroom is the one often used for the county's most celebrated cases.

"He was a great man and has had a great influence on all the judicial proceedings in Howard County," said Mr. Lloyd, the attorney. "All the judges try to emulate him. The worst thing you can say to them is that 'Judge Macgill never would have done that.' "

Judge Macgill's first wife, Mary Buckler Macgill, died in 1972.

He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth R. Macgill of Mount Airy; a sister, Elizabeth Macgill Bickley of Hyattsville; a son, James Macgill Jr. of Bel Air; a daughter, Mary Macgill Agre of Towson; a stepdaughter, Sally Keene Craig of Annapolis; and six grandchildren.

A private service was to be held at noon today in Ellicott City. A memorial service will be conducted at 2 p.m. July 13 at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center.

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