Perseverance pays off for first black circuit judge Alexander Wright Jr. joins Balto. Co. court

June 23, 1998|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Alexander Wright Jr. remembers one great moment of doubt in his nearly two-decade effort to become the first African-American judge on Baltimore County's circuit court.

At the Baltimore County Bar Association's annual banquet in the early 1980s at the Greenspring Valley Inn -- home to the county's landed gentry -- Wright discovered, "I was the only black, other than the waiters.

"That was the defining moment in my quest because I was so alone. I decided I was going to leave, and I went outside." But he figured if he left, "I'd never make it to the promised land." So he went back inside.

His perseverance paid off yesterday, when he was sworn in as Baltimore County's 16th circuit court judge, in a standing-room only courtroom ceremony in Towson.

His appointment to the higher court has brought plaudits from lawyers, politicians and judges who know Wright's work as a judge on the county district court.

It also has brought relief to some in the legal community who were privately embarrassed over the appearance of racism that came with having no black circuit court judges in a county that is 15 percent African-American.

"In this day in age, one is sorry to have to say 'the first' in Baltimore County," said Maryland's Chief Judge Robert M. Bell. "To me it's gratifying it's [Wright] who has achieved it. I can't think of a better person to have done so."

Wright grew up in West Baltimore, on Payson Street at Lafayette Avenue. He worked during high school at City College making deliveries for a neighborhood meat market, then attended Morgan State College to become a history teacher.

He was most inspired by his City College history teacher, the late Samuel L. Banks, who "instilled in me the desire to break barriers. He used to talk about the early '60s. He would dress in African garb and go downtown and integrate places."

At Morgan State, however, Wright's career path changed when a friend asked him to join him at the LSAT exam required for law school.

Wright scored well on the test, was accepted into University of Maryland Law School and graduated in 1974.

When he began practicing law as a public defender in the city, "I saw the difference a good judge can make. There were some judges who just wouldn't listen no matter what case you brought before them. Your client was guilty."

The open-minded judges made Wright begin thinking about becoming a judge some day. "I thought, 'This is a job I could do, and if I were a judge, I would listen,' " said Wright.

Wright and his wife, Marcia, moved to the county in 1980. They later considered moving back to the city, but decided to stay in the county so Wright could pursue his dream of becoming a county judge.

"There weren't many African-Americans interested in doing the things necessary to be a judge in Baltimore County. I could follow the herd [of black lawyers in the city] or strike out on my own to the path not taken."

He joined the county bar association and worked as "chairman of the admissions committee," he said, laughing at the thought of overseeing admittance to an organization that once banned blacks.

Over the years, as he continued to submit his name for a judgeship, Wright worked in several legal jobs, including the Maryland Attorney General's Office for 14 years, where he represented several state agencies -- including the court system where he was lawyer to the judges.

In 1982 he was given the attorney general's "exceptional service award."

"Alex is one of the nicest human beings to work with," said Stephen Sachs, the former Maryland attorney general who hired Wright. "He has a good sense of humor. He has excellent judgment and is enormously hard-working. Everything you'd want in a judge."

After Wright was appointed to the county district court in 1993 -- as the second black judge on that court -- he continued his interest in the circuit court, where he could hear cases of "murder, rapes and robberies, as well as multimillion-dollar judgment."

While on the district court he developed a reputation for being able to balance "the need for rehabilitation with punishment, which is often difficult to do," said his colleague, Judge Alexandra N. Williams.

Williams calls Wright her mentor who helped her learn the ropes of the district court when she was a newly appointed judge. "A lot of times I felt like I was going to drive him mad with all my questions, but he was always patient and was a wonderful teacher," she said.

Though Wright was the one to break the race barrier, the gender barrier was broken 10 years ago, when Barbara Kerr Howe became the first women on the county's circuit bench. She remains the only woman, and her experience might serve as a word of caution to Wright.

Howe said she has not found it easy to gain acceptance from all the men on the bench.

Whatever obstacles Wright may face, he is sanguine about his future as a circuit court judge.

"A barrier is only an artificial construct," he said. "It's not something that is to be leaped over, but continually pushed until it falls over on its own weight."

Pub Date: 6/23/98

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