Judge Robert B. Watts, 76, dies Civil rights lawyer, Circuit Court jurist, drew people together

October 09, 1998|By Frederick N. Rasmussen and Dennis O'Brien | Frederick N. Rasmussen and Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Robert Hilson contributed to this article.

Judge Robert B. Watts, a former judge and civil rights lawyer who worked to build bridges between the races, died yesterday afternoon of a heart attack at Sinai Hospital after being stricken Tuesday at the Wabash Avenue Metro station.

He was 76 and lived in Cross Keys.

"White, black, rich, poor -- he was a champion to them all," said retired Circuit Court Judge Joseph I. Pines, who served on the bench with Judge Watts for many years.

"People who were at each other's throat could talk to him and get things worked out," Judge Pines said.

"He was one of the finest people I ever knew. He was truly a great human being. He was always willing to help out and no matter how difficult the task, always did it with a smile," said Baltimore Circuit Court Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan.

"Whenever you needed someone in the judiciary, you called him," said former Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke called him "an outstanding public servant and a wonderful human being."

As a young lawyer for the local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Judge Watts defended those arrested in demonstrations that opened the doors to blacks at Northwood Theater, four major downtown department stores, downtown restaurants and Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in the 1960s.

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of the state Court of Appeals said Judge Watts represented him after he was arrested during a sit-in at a Baltimore restaurant.

He said Judge Watts was active on the front lines of the protests, but not as active as he could have been. "It was much more important that Bob Watts be on the outside to get you out [of jail]," Judge Bell said.

Judge Watts, who was born in West Baltimore, graduated with honors from Morgan State College in 1943 and then served in the Army until 1945. He earned a law degree from the University of Maryland in 1949 and that year he and others founded the firm of Brown, Allen and Watts.

He was named a judge of the city's Traffic Court in 1957, replacing E. Everett Lane, who was the first black to preside over a Maryland court of record.

He also worked in Baltimore with Thurgood Marshall, former Supreme Court justice and chief counsel for the NAACP, on civil rights cases before he was appointed a substitute police magistrate in 1953 and an assistant police court magistrate in 1956.

He was the first black appointed to the Municipal Court when it was formed in 1960. He was defeated in 1962, when his named appeared last in an alphabetical listing on the ballot, but was he reappointed by Gov. J. Millard Tawes in 1963. He won a full 10-year term in 1966.

In 1968, he was appointed by Gov. Spiro T. Agnew to the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City, the predecessor of the Circuit Court. He served on the court until 1985, when he retired at age 68 to join the law firm of Russell and Thompson, founded by George L. Russell Jr., a friend of 50 years.

"He was a great lawyer and he will be sorely missed," Mr. Russell said.

In 1986, Russell and Thompson merged with Piper and Marbury, one of the city's most prestigious law firms, and Judge Watts was appointed Of Counsel, a respected position usually reserved for a firm's elder statesman.

In recent years, he was working for the firm as a mediator and arbitrator.

Judge Watts' judicial career included many milestones.

When he left the bench in 1985, Judge Watts told The Evening Sun that his most significant case was Ross vs. Huffman in 1972 in which he established the legal precedent of the psychological parent.

In that case, a woman over several years gradually abandoned her infant daughter to the child's baby sitter, who raised the girl as her own. Judge Watts ruled -- in a decision affirmed by the state's two appellate courts -- that the child's attachment to the baby sitter was more important than the biological attachment to the mother.

A son, Rodney Watts of Baltimore, said his father considered the three most important milestones of his legal career to be his representation of the Congress of Racial Equality and the NAACP, the civil rights victories of the 1960s and serving as co-counsel with Marshall for the NAACP.

He enjoyed domestic law most because it "brought him closer to the people, and he liked helping to resolve their disputes," the son said.

"He was a brilliant jokester with an outstanding personality," said retired Judge Solomon Baylor, who called him a man "of a thousand jokes."

In addition to his son, Judge Watts is also survived by his wife, Jacquelyn Johnson, whom he married in 1944; another son, Robert B. Watts, Jr; three daughters, Jacquelyn Broady, Genelle Watts-Jackson and Bobette Watts, all of Baltimore; and two grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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