NOT ONLY is Maryland losing the state's top jurist, Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy of the Court of Appeals, it is also losing another judicial leader to retirement this fall. But a quirk of timing -- a three-week difference in birthdays -- will allow Judge Murphy to appoint a successor for Judge Robert F. Sweeney, chief of the state's District Court system.
That's a stroke of good fortune for the state. Although the Maryland Constitution gives the governor the power to appoint the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, he does not appoint the head of the District Court. That power is rightly reserved for the chief judge, who has overall responsibility for the state's judiciary.
Since Judge Murphy does not reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 until Oct. 9, some three weeks after Judge Sweeney celebrates that milestone on Sept. 17, he will appoint a new District Court chief as one of his last official acts.
The appointment will be in good hands. Judge Murphy has been a leader in the court system for 30 years, first as chief judge of the new Court of Special Appeals from 1967 to 1972, and, since 1972, as chief of the Court of Appeals and head of the state judiciary. He knows what the District Court job demands, he knows every judge in Maryland and he has a better grasp of the strengths and weaknesses of all the candidates than any of his potential successors.
In recent weeks there have been strong indications that Gov. Parris N. Glendening wants to dictate this appointment. That would be a travesty. The great triumph of the District Court system is that, with its founding 25 years ago, it transformed a magistrate court system dominated by politics and laced with petty corruption into one in which honorable men and women can be proud to serve -- in short, a court system that dispenses justice according to law rather than influence. Nothing is more dangerous to that image than the sight of a governor trying to influence an appointment he has no constitutional power to make.
Judge Sweeney has ably led the District Courts since they opened for business in 1971. The transition to his successor is an important event in Maryland's judicial history -- much too important for politics to overshadow constitutional principle.
Pub Date: 7/21/96