Sweeney leaving mark, name on Md. judiciary District Court chief will retire Monday

September 13, 1996|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Last week was not a bad one for Robert F. Sweeney, the quick-witted Irishman and master-class storyteller who has guided Maryland's District Court system through its first quarter-century.

He had a building named after him, and a few hundred of his closest friends -- including two former governors, the Senate president, the House speaker and the retired archbishop of Baltimore -- gathered to pay tribute to him.

Sweeney is retiring Monday -- the day before he turns 70, as is required by Maryland's Constitution -- as the state's first and so far only chief judge of the District Court.

"Bob Sweeney has probably had more impact on the court experiences of everyday Marylanders than anyone else in this century," said Timothy F. Maloney, a former legislator and one of the judge's closest friends.

"The change that he brought about in handling everyday cases -- misdemeanors, traffic offenses, civil cases -- has been nothing short of extraordinary," he said.

Highly regarded

Maloney's is hardly a lone voice in its praise for Sweeney and his abilities.

He is highly regarded by elected officials, lawyers and other judges as a politically savvy and scrupulously honest administrator of the statewide court system.

Sweeney is credited with ushering in and protecting, under five governors, the much-needed replacement for the state's old patchwork of local courts once overseen by politically minded, and at times corrupt, judges, magistrates and justices of the peace.

"There were judges who were racists, who had alcohol problems, who were wife-beaters and who thought they had found the greatest 10-to-2 job in the world," Sweeney said. "I outlived the bastards, the whole collection of them."

He had to be talked into taking the job, finally realizing, he said, that he was being offered "the chance to leave tracks that I'd never have again in my lifetime. Looking back, I'm proud to have done that."

Since 1971, when Gov. Marvin Mandel created the District Court as a reform measure and named Sweeney to run it, the system has grown to 1,300 employees, including 99 judges, in 35 courthouses statewide.

Sweeney now oversees an operation in which more than 2.4 million cases are filed each year, and a quarter of them come to trial. He controls a $74 million budget, about $67 million of which is recouped by the state through fines and court fees.

"Being a new court, newly organized, and changing from a more or less political type of court to a true judicial court, it needed somebody who could do the work -- somebody with a lot of drive and a lot of feeling for what he was doing, and particularly with an ability to get along with people -- to put it together," Mandel said.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who practiced in both the old and new court systems, agrees Sweeney was that somebody.

"I don't think there will be another chief judge of the District Court with quite the talent or depth of government experience," Curran said.

Understanding, strong

A devout Catholic -- and lifelong Democrat -- Sweeney is not unlike an old parish priest, a father-confessor presiding over a flock of judges as diverse as the counties in the state and the governors who appointed them. He tends to them with an understanding ear, but with a direct and strong hand -- just as he promised when he took over.

It is difficult to find a critic of Sweeney, though his strong-mindedness has put him at odds occasionally with colleagues on the bench and within the state bureaucracy.

"Judge Sweeney can be a very charming individual but he also can be very forceful," said Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, Baltimore Circuit Court's administrative judge, who has squared off with Sweeney.

While Sweeney's professional persona is that of a straight arrow, he also is a character notorious for his dry wit, lightning-fast sarcasm and outrageous practical jokes.

Known as a raconteur

He is recognized nationally as a raconteur and keeps a rigorous speaking schedule around the state and beyond. His tales -- particularly sentimental stories about Irish life -- can trigger tears from a roomful of grown men, though more often his stories prompt gales of laughter.

Particularly when speaking to bar and bench groups, the object of his needle is Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals and a friend for more than 30 years.

In legal circles, the two high-court chieftains have become a hilarious tag team as they trade barbs about each other's age, mental state and legal abilities.

It seems fitting that the two men, whose names are linked more often than not, will retire within a month of each other, leaving two of the state's three court systems leaderless. Murphy, who has the constitutional charge of naming Sweeney's replacement, will step down as the state's top judge Oct. 8, on the eve of his 70th birthday.

"We have had an extraordinary relationship," Sweeney said.

Murphy has high praise for Sweeney, summing him up in one word: "Integrity."

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