James H. Norris Jr., 77, clerk of Maryland's highest court

April 15, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

James H. Norris Jr., a retired state court administrator and clerk of Maryland's highest court, died April 8 in Florida after falling down steps while sightseeing. He was 77.

Mr. Norris and his wife, who moved to Florida from Maryland eight years ago, were on an Elderhostel trip in Tarpon Springs when Mr. Norris tripped while descending a flight of concrete steps leading to a bayou. He suffered severe head injuries and was pronounced dead on the scene when paramedics arrived minutes later, the police said.

Born in Baltimore, the son of a judge, Mr. Norris was quick to make his mark in the state's legal circles. He took a job as a clerk in the attorney general's office soon after law school and moved up the next year to assistant attorney general, handling criminal appeals. He left the office about 1961 and spent two years in private practice.

By then he was a familiar figure in the state's courthouses, and the judges on the Maryland Court of Appeals recruited him for the clerk's office. He would spend the next two decades there, impressing his colleagues as an efficient administrator with a knack for workplace diplomacy. He spent 12 years as chief clerk.

In January 1983, Mr. Norris replaced Judge William H. Adkins II as state court administrator, a post in which he oversaw management of the state court system. He suffered a stroke in 1989 and retired the next year.

He had met his wife, Nancy Lou Miller, a medical technologist who worked in Maryland blood banks, during his college days. They married in 1955, and raised seven children in houses in Baltimore's Mount Washington neighborhood and in Severna Park.

He ran a tight ship at home, waking his children early Saturday mornings and assigning each a chore from a list he kept on a yellow legal pad. Dinner was served at 6 sharp.

His eldest child, Mary C. Norris Felando, 45, remembers that he was honest nearly to a fault. In fifth grade, she called his office to ask that he bring home a paperclip for a report she was writing for school. She couldn't find any at home.

"He'd say, `Mary, I really can't do that. It's the property of the court,"' Mrs. Felando recalled yesterday. She wasn't really surprised. Her father never exceeded the speed limit, crossed roads only at crosswalks, and grunted in disapproval when his wife uttered mild curses such as "hell's bells."

Mrs. Norris said her husband showed an uncanny interest in planning the menus for dinners and cocktail parties. His flair for the good life carried into retirement, when he would pack bottles of gin and tonic for vacations and mix cocktails at 4:30 p.m. sharp.

Mr. Norris was raised in the city's Govans neighborhood and graduated from City College, Loyola College and the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America.

He was drafted into the Army's 148th Combat Engineers Battalion during World War II and landed on Utah Beach the day after D-Day. He remained in the reserves, in the judge advocate general corps, and retired after 24 years as a major.

In 1994, four years after his retirement, he and his wife moved to Port St. Lucie, Fla. His fatal fall occurred the first day of a three-day Elderhostel tour of the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.

Besides his wife, he is survived by three daughters, Karen H. Perry and Anne L. Butterworth, both of Pasadena, and Mrs. Felando, of Los Alamitos, Calif.; four sons, James H. Norris III of Severna Park, Edward A. Norris of Catonsville, Michael V. Norris of Brooklyn Park and Douglas A. Norris of Los Angeles; one sister, Mary L. Hooke of Pittsville; and 11 grandchildren.

Burial will be May 9 at Arlington National Cemetery, where family and friends are invited to assemble in the administration building at 8:30 a.m.

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