The first judge

Robert F. Sweeney: District Court's chief judge oversaw creation of Maryland's lower court system.

July 20, 1999

FOR the first quarter-century of its existence, Maryland's District Court system and Robert F. Sweeney were synonymous. He gave birth to it, nurtured it and watched it grow into a highly competent and efficient judiciary handling 2.4 million cases annually with 99 judges, 1,300 employees, 35 courthouses and a budget of $90 million.

It is a professional and well-run operation, thanks to Mr. Sweeney, who was chief judge of the District Court from its inception in 1971 until his retirement in 1996. Gov. Marvin Mandel pushed through legislation and worked to gain voter support for the new system in 1970, but it was Mr. Sweeney, who died Saturday at 72, who welded together a statewide court network and gave it integrity.

It wasn't easy. District courts replaced a patchwork of highly political and corruption-riddled lower courts that varied in number and quality from county to county. It included justices of the peace, trial magistrates, People's Court judges and Baltimore City's Municipal Court judges. Nearly all of them were appointed by the governor with the approval of the local state senators.

The new District Court took much of the politics out of the selection process by giving power to a judicial nominating commission that sends the governor a list of finalists for these 15-year judgeships. Mr. Sweeney proved a tough but fair boss for his judges.

Today's uniform system of lower courts owes much to his management skills and political talents. He lobbied for years for free-standing District Court buildings that didn't share space with the local police force, so defendants wouldn't view judges as an appendage of the arresting officers. He usually got what he wanted, thanks to his jovial nature and a finely honed sense of politics he had polished in six years as deputy attorney general.

Some experts consider the District Court system the most far-reaching judicial reform in Maryland this century. Judge Sweeney deserves most of the credit for making it work so well.

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