District Court's 1st chief dies

Judge Robert Sweeney oversaw new system, opposed corruption

July 18, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Retired Maryland Judge Robert F. Sweeney, who oversaw the creation of the state's highly regarded District Court system to replace a corruption-riddled patchwork of local courts, died of leukemia yesterday at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

Judge Sweeney, who was 72, was the first and only chief judge of the District Court system from its creation in 1971 until his mandatory retirement three years ago.

A politically adept jurist who succeeded with a combination of charm and determination, he has been credited with leading the modernization of a court system that had been overseen by politically minded, and at times corrupt, judges, magistrates and justices of the peace.

"It was probably the most inspiring of all the judicial reforms effected over the last century or so," said retired Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, a friend of Mr. Sweeney's since high school.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening called Judge Sweeney "a true friend of justice."

"In 1971, when Judge Sweeney took over as the first chief judge of the newly created District Court, he said he wanted to make it a court of integrity, a court of true justice and a court of dignity," Gov. Glendening said in a statement. "He was a dedicated leader who made that true."

Former Gov. Marvin Mandel created the District Court system as a reform measure and persuaded Sweeney to run it. In the early days, the system's courtrooms were set up in a variety of unlikely places, such as old garages and former convenience stores.

Judge Sweeney pushed the legislature for an ambitious spending plan to build courthouses and add judges to the system. Under five governors, he pushed for the appointment of qualified judges, and those who weren't performing were summoned for lectures.

Eventually, remnants of the old, highly politicized lower-court system disappeared.

"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," Judge Sweeney said in an interview when he retired. "I outlived the bastards, the whole collection of them."

By the time he left the chief judgeship, the District Court system had grown to 1,300 employees, including 99 judges, in 35 courthouses statewide.

With more than 2.4 million cases filed annually -- ranging from traffic tickets to relatively minor criminal and civil matters -- the District Court is the place where most Marylanders get their only firsthand glimpse of the state's judicial system.

"Bob's probably affected the everyday experience of Marylanders in the courtroom more than any person in this century," said former state Del. Timothy F. Maloney, who headed a subcommittee that oversaw the judiciary budget.

Retired, but working

Under state law, Judge Sweeney was forced to retire when he reached age 70. Both he and Judge Murphy objected to the mandatory retirement provision and the General Assembly in 1994 passed a constitutional amendment undoing it. The voters, however, rejected the constitutional change that year, leaving the retirement age at 70.

But his retirement as the system's chief judge gave Judge Sweeney the opportunity for the first time to spend an extended amount of time presiding over District Court cases as a fill-in judge.

On many occasions, he would exceed the number of days a fill-in judge can work, but would keep hearing cases as an unpaid volunteer.

Even when his health faltered, he continued to preside in court, often taking a nap on an office couch after clearing his morning docket to regain energy for the afternoon session, according to his successor as chief judge, Martha F. Rasin.

"He was the embodiment of the District Court," Judge Rasin said. "He lived it and breathed it."

Last fall, the state honored Judge Sweeney by naming the new Annapolis District Court for him.

Robert Francis Sweeney was born in Baltimore on Sept. 17, 1926, the middle child in a seven-child Irish-Catholic family.

He liked to joke about his checkered educational career. He dropped out of Loyola High School and joined the Navy during World War II. After a two-year hitch, he attended Loyola College but dropped out again.

He returned to college and went on to graduate from University of Baltimore law school while working for Crown Central Petroleum Corp. In 1953, he married the former Elizabeth Lee Andrews. She died in 1996.

Thanks to his work on behalf of a Northeast Baltimore Democratic political organization, Judge Sweeney landed an appointment to a magistrate's seat on the old Baltimore Housing Court in 1959.

He was known for his sharp criticism of slumlords, but he also established a series of courses to instruct people who appeared in his court on being better tenants.

In 1961, Judge Sweeney went to work for the Maryland attorney general's office, eventually rising to the No. 2 post under his longtime friend, Robert Murphy.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.