In schools case, unlikely partners 3 merged lawsuits unite two judges with formidable strengths

November 11, 1996|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

One judge is known as a peacemaker. One judge is known as an enforcer.

They are unlikely partners now, a formidable team, drawn together by their desire to see Baltimore's struggling public schools reclaimed before the end of the century.

Partners in justice, they are Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the Circuit Court for Baltimore, and U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis.

Each has handled headline-making cases. Now, they preside over a tug-of-war between the city and state for control of the vision, the management and the money of school reform.

Who they are, and how they are shaping this urban school drama, will influence the lives of Baltimore's children for years to come.

"Hey, judge, aren't you in the wrong courthouse?" joshes an attorney who encounters Garbis in the city's Courthouse East.

Usually quick with a retort, Garbis finds himself laughing at the truth within the joke.

His own chambers, and his vintage fountain pen collection, are about 10 blocks west and high above Pratt Street in the steel-and-glass Edward A. Garmatz Courthouse.

The city courthouse on Calvert Street, with its dignified stone facade and polished brass, is Kaplan's turf. Lately, though, it has been Garbis' as well.

Their alliance has been likened to a marriage of judicial first cousins.

Tomorrow, Garbis is to join Kaplan on the bench for a milestone meeting in the mega-case they created by combining three lawsuits concerning the quality of Baltimore public schools.

If the case is settled, the resulting reorganization of the school system would bear the stamp of both judges.

If the case goes to trial, Garbis and Kaplan would hear the testimony together, one time through, and then issue separate but linked rulings.

A joint trial would be a first, say national groups that monitor the justice system. Technically, a federal trial and state trial would take place simultaneously, with legions of lawyers and more than 100 witnesses.

Come settlement or trial, the case will be studied for the judges' unorthodox effort to streamline the search for solutions to entrenched school problems.

"I've always believed judges have to do things creatively and not just as they have always been done," Garbis says. "The cases have a tremendous overlap of evidence. It was a no-brainer -- if it could be done."

Parallel tracks

One recent morning in Kaplan's wood-paneled courtroom, the judges reflect on the lack of precedent as they organize the trial. They are making up procedures as they go.

Hovering over his well-worn, high-backed armchair, Kaplan asks Garbis to try it for comfort.

Kaplan turns to a wide-eyed law clerk: Find a second chair. And make sure it is identical -- same height, same model and, if possible, same color -- "or we may fight over who gets the blue one," Garbis wisecracks.

The judges have known each other at least 40 years, during which they traveled near-parallel tracks to the bench.

At the Johns Hopkins University, Garbis and Kaplan joined Phi Alpha, an upstart fraternity of young scholars.

"Eggheads," Garbis says.

"We were nerds," adds Kaplan.

They also were trailblazers. The 1956 yearbook, Hullabaloo, lists Phi Alpha as Hopkins' first nonsectarian fraternity.

Kaplan, a philosophy major, graduated in 1957, studied law at the University of Chicago and went into practice and public service.

As a young lawyer in 1973, he earned a footnote in history by representing Lester Matz, who confessed his role in a bribery scheme that brought down Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.

Appointed to the bench in 1976, Kaplan rose to become the administrative judge of the Circuit Court.

Kaplan, now 59, presided over cases arising from the 1980s Old Court Savings and Loan debacle in Maryland. And in June, he negotiated the sale of the renowned Lucas Collection of prints, sculptures and paintings that kept the treasures in Maryland museums.

"It's always an intellectual, give-and-take approach," says Neal M. Janey, former city solicitor. "I think he has the unique ability of getting people to accept the weak points in their positions."

Garbis, now 60, graduated from Hopkins in 1958 with a degree in electrical engineering. He advanced to Harvard and Georgetown law schools, and to prominence as a tax attorney.

He arrived on the federal bench as an appointee of President George Bush in 1989.

This spring, he oversaw the controversial settlement of a desegregation case enabling more than 2,000 poor black families to move from public housing to mostly white, middle-class areas of the city and suburbs during the next six years.

He also is known in Baltimore as the special-education judge with the razor-sharp pen.

Garbis' portion of the giant schools case stems from a 1984 lawsuit filed by advocates for disabled students who argued that Baltimore special-education programs were deficient.

Fearful school administrators speak of him in whispers: As he enforces agreements designed to improve the schools, Garbis has shown little patience for broken promises and missed deadlines.

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