Judge with feel for family leaves bench, but not law

Circuit Court loses its divorce expert to private practice

October 31, 2001|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

He's arranged seating for confirmations and weddings because warring parents couldn't agree on who would sit where. He's thrilled and disappointed thousands of adults in decisions on child custody and support.

In nearly two decades on the bench, Judge James C. Cawood Jr. has presided over the dissolution of countless failed relationships, and he's patiently dealt with the couples who return to his courtroom year after year.

"When a case comes in, everybody loves you. When they keep coming back, at least one of them doesn't love you," Cawood said with characteristically dry wit.

At 65, Cawood, considered the grandfather of family law matters in the county and an expert in the field throughout the state, is leaving the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court bench. He'll be packing and finishing up cases for a month, but yesterday was his last regular workday.

As he heads for private legal practice, the court will lose one of the longest-serving judges in county history, one who combined a love of history and classic literature with a desire to make family splits more manageable.

He's recognizable across the courthouse in Annapolis by his thatch of rumpled white hair. And he's known across the state for working to get many of the support services that courts have today - the counselors, the mediators, the social workers and more - to evaluate the needs and wants of families struggling through divorce and custody battles.

Domestic mediation and facilitating settlement of family issues have long been his particular interests. "He's recognized by trial and appellate judges throughout the state as an expert in these fields," said Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals and head of the state judiciary's Rules Committee.

From the time he was appointed by Gov. Harry R. Hughes in 1982, Cawood focused on family cases, mostly, he said, because it was an area of the law that garnered too little attention and had too many problems.

"It was an opportunity to make it work," he said.

While some judges found the emotionally feverish cases draining, he found them rewarding. He liked making decisions. But, he said, the secret to a good divorce or custody arrangement - if there is such a thing - is for the parties to reach a reasonable settlement, with a judge making decisions for them only when the litigants lock horns.

His other secret: Station a deputy sheriff in the courtroom when announcing the decision.

Married 40 years to lawyer Katherine K. Cawood and father of seven adult children, he says he can offer no profound words on the secret of a long marriage beyond having shared interests as well as individual interests.

Martin B. Lessans, chairman of the family law committee for the Anne Arundel Bar Association, said Cawood has shown the ability to focus on legal issues even while angry husbands and wives are all but breathing fire in the courtroom. He also praised Cawood for patiently dealing with the growing number of litigants who have no lawyer and with long disputes.

Judge Clayton Greene Jr., the administrative judge of the circuit courts that include Anne Arundel County, said, "Judge Cawood is phenomenal. He is the history of all the family cases in this court."

These days, Greene noted, the family division resembles a social service agency nearly as much as a court, and he said he applauded Cawood's dedication to trying to help children in divorces.

Greene served as co-chairman of a judiciary committee on the implementation of family divisions in the state's five largest jurisdictions.

Cawood led the county court's family division from its inception in 1998. After the judicial rotation moved him out of family law cases, he decided to step down from the bench to work as a private attorney specializing in family law.

People who know him kid that he's really leaving because his favorite lunch spot, the cafeteria at Anne Arundel Medical Center across the street from the courthouse, will close Dec. 2 with the hospital's relocation.

At his desk before 8 a.m. and staying after dark many days, Cawood has given the state its money's worth, lawyers say. When case files weren't on his desk, he hunted down the court clerks who had them. His eyes were down, when on the bench, not because he was nodding off but because he was scribbling notes.

Attorneys say he is old-fashioned yet forward-thinking, well-rounded in general knowledge and encyclopedic in his knowledge of history. A Washington native educated at Georgetown University, he quotes from poetry. He quotes from classics. He quotes in several languages.

His early retirement from the bench - judges are forced off at age 70 - won't mean a life spent in the museums he loves to visit. He will get a change of perspective in family cases at the downtown Annapolis law firm of Mason, Ketterman and Cawood (his son, Robert H.B. Cawood).

There, he'll handle divorce and custody cases - and try to settle them before they make it to the courthouse across the street.

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