Behind the bench, another perspective

Transition: A new judicial appointee is learning to shoulder the duties and responsibilities of an honor she has spent her professional life working toward.

The Making Of A Judge

July 14, 2002|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

It's May 23, just minutes to show time, and Judge Pamila J. Brown is in a tizzy.

It's her first day sitting in judgment, a moment she has worked toward all her adult life, but, in reality, only crammed for during the past few weeks.

It's the day she'll hand down her first verdict, offer her first admonition, assess her first fine. From this day forward - amid a crush of drug and assault and traffic and minor civil cases - she'll be making decisions that, in a heartbeat, could set a life back on the right path or send it spiraling downward.

Pressure? What pressure?

It would help if something went right. It would help if she had a few more hours to spare.

She has barely had time to throw a few legal books and a yellow lined pad on her new bench in her new Howard County courtroom, and she still hasn't gotten the hang of the traffic computer with only minutes to go before she attempts to deal with more than 50 speeding cases.

"I'm stressing," she mumbles, almost to herself, her voice tight, her angular face wiped clean of its usual smile.

With a wipe of her glasses, a hug for bailiff Bernice Galbreath and a glance at her lifeline - Judge Neil Edward Axel, who will be sitting mute beside her for a time this day - she walks, heart hammering, out the chambers-area door and toward Courtroom 1, the one marked for the past two weeks with a new nameplate: "Pamila J. Brown."

"All rise ... "

April 4

Brown is in the midst of an important conference call just before 11 a.m. when she grabs a ringing line at the attorney general's office on Preston Street in Baltimore.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening would like to speak with her, she is told.

"He says, `I guess you know why I'm calling.' And I said, `I hope so,' " she recalls. "I said `Thank you' a thousand times. I was just babbling."

Six years after she first submitted her name for a District Court judgeship, she is Glendening's pick for the $111,500-a-year job.

Her 47 years of living and learning - from her childhood in Bel Air to her later life as a litigator, civic volunteer, wife and mother - are about to come crashing together.

She is euphoric.

The reality of the challenge will hit in a day or two. Ask any judge.

You spend years working and learning the law, building a reputation in the legal community, volunteering for bar association activities, rubbing shoulders with those in influence.

If you've impressed the right people, gained the right support and get lucky, the governor just might tap you to fill one of Maryland's 272 judicial slots. (In the past year, 28 lawyers and judges in Maryland have been appointed or elevated from a lower court to a higher court seat.)

Suddenly, in a few short weeks, you've got to disentangle yourself from one life and learn a new one, aided only by a few procedural and legal books and the brief guidance of busy colleagues.

Used to arguing a point, you've got to remember to keep your mouth shut. Used to letting your emotions show, you've got to keep a poker face. Used to taking a stand for your client, you've got to remain neutral.

No one said making the transition from advocate to arbiter would be easy.

But first, Brown has to call her family.

Her husband, Christopher Robinson, gets an emergency page.

"When I saw 911, I said, `I bet she got it,'" Robinson says.

March 1970

Pamila Brown was scared.

She had cut class at Bel Air High School, where her strict father taught, to steal a look at a piece of high legal drama.

Radical H. Rap Brown, charged with inciting violence in riot-scarred Cambridge on the Eastern Shore, was being tried in her hometown.

Outside the historic courthouse, the case had transformed sleepy Bel Air. There were roadblocks. A bomb detonated a few miles from the courthouse, killing two of H. Rap Brown's friends in their car.

Inside, famed civil liberties attorney William Kunstler thundered for the defense. Something about the way the wild-haired, radical lawyer spoke amid the turmoil stayed with the 15-year-old.

"I guess I was just drawn to it," she said.

The daughter of a social worker and a respected physical education teacher and coach, William "Bill" Brown, a world-class runner and medalist in the Pan-American Games, she was living in a time of turbulent social change.

As an African-American child during the earliest days of educational integration in Harford County, Pamila Brown felt the taint of racism. And she had listened as her parents participated in an interracial dialogue with a diverse group seeking ways to get along in a new world.

She would see Kunstler in action again in 1974 while studying political science at Macalester College in Minnesota.

His eloquence impressed her. So did his penchant for taking unsympathetic clients and cases that opened wounds and dealt with important social issues.

The political drama playing in courtrooms across America in those years and her growing awareness of the judiciary as an instrument of change pulled her toward the law, she said.

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