As retirement nears, judge forges ahead

Courtroom veteran Vaughan named chief of state district courts

November 25, 2001|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Maryland District Court Chief Judge James N. Vaughan was in his element - standing in a crowded courtroom with a mass of teen-agers at rapt attention.

No matter that this wasn't a court trial but a judicial show-and-tell for Anne Arundel County high school students. Vaughan had a captive audience for his message: A person caught with a high blood-alcohol content is a likely an alcoholic. Alcohol is the single greatest cause of death for young people.

"If you know there's alcoholism in your family, don't ever take a drink," he said, pacing in front of the students wedged onto the Arundel courtroom's benches.

For Vaughan, the mantra is familiar. He's been lecturing defendants in Howard County District Court for years on the perils of alcohol and alcohol abuse. But this time, he was an invited guest; the bench belonged to someone else.

After 19 years dispensing justice in Howard, quizzing defendants about their efforts to come clean and questioning them about the ravages of alcohol abuse, Vaughan has given up his regular pulpit.

Not to retirement, but to a new, higher profile role as the third-ever chief of the 30-year-old District Court system.

It's not a job he sought. Vaughan, who turns 67 next month, planned to retire next summer. But when Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell tracked him down during his three-week vacation in September and asked him to take over the day-to-day operations of the 108-judge, 35-courthouse system, he found himself saying yes. Vaughan assumed the chief's job Sept. 19 after Judge Martha F. Rasin stepped down.

"This court is important to me. The people here are just sensational. So I thought if I could help them in some way by maintaining the continuity of what prior judges have done ... " he said, leaving the thought unfinished.

The appointment left folks in Howard surprised - albeit proud of their boss. Vaughan was not among the five applicants for the job.

"There was nothing. No rumors, nothing to indicate he would be even thinking about it," said Joy Barwick, Vaughan's longtime administrative assistant.

Then there was the retirement question. Even if Vaughan hadn't been planning to retire soon - his wife, Nancy, is retired from teaching - he can give only three years to his new job. The mandatory retirement age for Maryland judges is 70.

Bell said he decided it wasn't so important for the new chief to be available for many years. Vaughan, the system's longest-serving administrative judge and fourth-longest-serving District Court judge, could do enough in three.

"He has a real sincere love for the District Court and sees the bigger picture," Bell said.

In Howard, he has been seen as alternately ornery and humorous. Lawyers say he was a stickler for starting court on time and was no fan of postponement requests. Prosecutors and defense attorneys who wanted to sense how their arguments were being received needed to look no farther than Vaughan's glasses. When he fiddled with the spectacles, throwing them on the bench or lifting them above his eyebrows, it might have meant he was frustrated.

Speeders hoping for probation before his judgment were out of luck - unless they had clean driving records that spanned at least two decades. And those caught drinking and driving, a topic in which Vaughan was well-versed even though he says he has never tasted alcohol, could expect a stern set of questions and a lecture warning them to "leave the drinking to the frogs."

Vaughan, who's well-acquainted with Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step program, was known for grilling defendants about the meetings they attended and which of the steps they were working on, said K. Frank Turban, a drinking driver monitor in Howard County. Vaughan's sentence might include ordering a defendant to attend 90 AA meetings in 90 days.

District Public Defender Carol A. Hanson said she initially thought Vaughan's requirements were setting clients up for failure.

"But, although he set the bar high, if someone came back on a violation hearing and they had tried, Judge Vaughan was an excellent judge for sentencing clients with substance abuse problems," she said.

Court officials say Vaughan also shows a great deal of compassion from the bench, that he recognizes when defendants are trying to turn their lives around.

"I think his bark was always worse than his bite," said longtime Howard District Court chief prosecutor Michael A. Weal. "He could lay you out up one side and down the other ... and at the end wish you luck."

Then, too, there is the legendary humor, a dry, deadpan wit. His humor reveals itself often in interviews - as does his love of history and geography and family. His new office in Annapolis, like his old one in Ellicott City, is filled with panoramic pictures of visits to various states, as well as family photos - he has a son and three grandchildren - and historical artifacts from family members who lived in the North Carolina mountains in the 19th century.

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