With closing argument, judge ends 37-year term Md.'s Hammerman questions being forced to put down gavel at 70

July 16, 1998|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The longest-serving trial judge in Maryland history hangs up his robes today -- and he is not happy about it.

"I'm not retiring. They're retiring me," says Baltimore Circuit Chief Judge Robert I.H. Hammerman.

After 37 years of deciding other people's fates and disputes, Hammerman says this choice is being made for him: He will turn 70 tomorrow, the mandatory retirement age for judges under Maryland law.

He sees little sense to being forced out because of his age, especially since he is fit enough to walk up the five flights of stairs to his courtroom two or three times each day, he still needs only four hours of sleep each night, can beat 20-year-old opponents at tennis, and plays an hour of squash five times a week.

He loves the work routine that begins at 5: 30 a.m. and involves listening to hours of arcane legal arguments.

"I feel like every day is a new day, and every day is different. I've never felt tired, or bored at this job," he says.

Hammerman has asked Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert Mack Bell to allow him to serve in retirement as much as possible as a part-time judge, a position that would mean "specially assigning" him to any courthouse in Maryland where judges are short-handed.

Bell says he intends to take Hammerman up on his offer. "I think he's been a great judge," said Bell, who served with Hammerman on the Baltimore Circuit Court in the 1980s before Bell was appointed the state's top judge.

It upsets Hammerman that Maryland law will allow him to serve as a part-time judge for only one-third of any calendar year.

Hammerman, who is single, gives the impression of being willing to go just about anywhere to hear a case.

"I've always said that when my time is up in this world, I want it to be in one of three courts: a court of law, a tennis court or a squash court," Hammerman said.

From the beginning

Robert Israel Harold Hammerman was born in Baltimore, the son of Herman Hammerman, a lawyer who did mostly real estate work for his older brother, S. L. Hammerman, a prominent Baltimore developer.

A graduate of City College, the Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Law School, Hammerman was appointed in 1961 by Gov. J. Millard Tawes to be a judge on the old Baltimore Municipal Court to decide traffic cases, neighborhood disputes and misdemeanor offenses. He was appointed six years later to the Supreme Bench of Baltimore, which became the Baltimore Circuit Court in 1983.

He spent his first eight years on the Supreme Bench presiding over the city's Juvenile Court and is credited with bringing the court into compliance with a landmark 1967 Supreme Court case, In Re Gault, that guaranteed juvenile offenders the same right to an attorney as adults.

In the spotlight

Over the years, Hammerman has presided over some of the city's most publicized trials, including the 1995 jury trial for John Joseph Merzbacher, then 53, a former Catholic Community Middle School teacher accused of sexually abusing 14 students and other teen-agers between 1972 and 1979.

Hammerman sentenced the former teacher to four life terms for raping one of the students.

In recent years, Hammerman said, the courts have been flooded with criminal cases -- particularly drug cases. When he was appointed to the Supreme Bench there were 15 judges, he said. These days there are twice that many judges -- and the courts are still swamped, he said.

"The drug culture just permeates everything we do here," he said.

Be on time, or else

In court, Hammerman developed a reputation as a strict, uncompromising no-nonsense judge, who appeared each morning on the bench at exactly 9 a.m. and expected lawyers to be just as punctual.

"He's very big on punctuality," said David Moore, a former law clerk who is now a Baltimore assistant state's attorney.

Many lawyers also say that Hammerman is prone to lose his temper, is often quick to make up his mind on a case and will dress down lawyers who either try to argue him out of his position or fail to show proper respect.

"He's never held me in contempt, but he's chewed me out," said Curt Anderson, a criminal defense lawyer, former state delegate and a longtime friend. "It reminded me of being 17 again and being chewed out -- it was that bad."

Lewis A. Noonberg, another lawyer and longtime friend, attributes Hammerman's legendary short fuse to his work ethic and his competitive edge.

"He loves sports, and he loves to beat the pants off people half his age. He doesn't get any thrill out of beating me 'cause I'm only 10 years younger than him," said Noonberg, 60.

Reputation for honesty

Hammerman admits to being competitive and to insisting on civility in his courtroom.

But more than anything, he says, he values his reputation for honesty. So he says it offended him when he was charged with leaving the scene of an accident after a fender-bender outside the Pikesville library on Reisterstown Road on April 5, 1997.

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