A colorful life on the bench

Court: Just months from mandatory retirement, a Baltimore County judge with a style all his own looks back at his decades in Towson.

January 06, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

A. Gordon Boone Jr., scion of the storied Maryland political family, glared down from his judge's bench at the man in ankle chains who was explaining his predicament.

He did not really assault his ex-girlfriend, the man told the judge. He just wanted to see his son, he said, and she had set him up. She knew that he was on probation and that a complaint could send him back to jail.

The judge interrupted, his booming voice equal parts gravel and gentlemanly lilt.

"These women, they know that!" Boone exclaimed. "So you got to walk on egg shells. Man, you squashed the whole dozen of them. Man, why do you do this to yourself?"

His voice got softer.

"What drugs you like?"

Marijuana, the answer came.

"You crazy?" the judge said, once again loud, incredulous. "Why you smoking weed? What do you think, you're the president of the United States or something?!"

It was a typical Boone exchange on a typical Boone docket in Baltimore County District Court, the bench where the 69-year-old judge has presided for more than 20 years. He is one of the longest-serving District Court judges in the state.

He presides in Towson as comfortably as his family once presided over the county - during the era when the Boones and the Turnbulls and the Pines ruled Towson and Annapolis, back before the scandals broke and the leaders changed.

This year will be the last for Boone in the Towson courthouse. In August, he will reach what he and other judges call the "statutory age of senility," or 70, the age at which the legislature says judges must step down. And although Boone hopes to join the group of retired judges who occasionally substitute, his departure ends the daily legal life he has had in Towson since 1957.

"I have some trepidation about this retirement business," Boone said recently. "There's only so much you can play golf."

Boone is one of Towson's "old guard," a judge who remembers when everybody knew everybody on Chesapeake and Pennsylvania avenues, when the old Penn Hotel poured gin and politics.

It is a shrinking but strong group, and many of the friends Boone made during his younger days are now county judges and prominent lawyers.

The annual foursome in the Jude Cup - the golf trip so named after a reservation desk dropped the "g" from "Judge" - is Boone, Circuit Judges Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. and Judge John G. Turnbull II, and lawyer Warren Mix.

As soon as they dispense with the obligatory ribbing, these friends speak of Boone as the model District Court judge. They talk about how his departure will leave a hole in the county.

It is Boone's past, they say - part storybook, part soap opera - that let him master the frenetic District Court, the place where most cases begin, where character judgments are key and where justice is dispensed quickly.

"He is not as learned in law as he is learned in life," said Bollinger, one of Boone's close friends. "There's not much he hasn't done."

Boone grew up in Ruxton's Oak Hill mansion - near Bellona Avenue and Charles Street - owned by his uncle, James R. Herbert Boone, and he often traveled to his family's home in Hawaii. But his friends said that after his divorce from his first wife, Boone lived out of his car and collected none of the family fortune because Uncle Herbert left everything to the Johns Hopkins University.

The young Boone moved in the political circles of his father, also A. Gordon Boone, a powerful Towson lawyer and later speaker of the House of Delegates. But he also endured his father's conviction and imprisonment for 13 months in the early 1960s savings and loans scandal.

Boone went to Gilman School, St. Paul's School and Georgetown Prep - the judge calls his academic career "checkered" - then joined the Air Force and enrolled at the University of Maryland. He left college without graduating and then went to law school at night.

During the next two decades, Boone worked as a county prosecutor, a public defender, a city prosecutor and a private lawyer in Towson. In 1982, Gov. Harry R. Hughes made him a District Court judge.

Boone can now make an individual defendant quake or a line of prisoners break into laughter.

"At one point, he told a defendant that if he didn't like [Boone's] decision, he could take it to those blowhards Bollinger and Turnbull in Circuit Court," said Turnbull, whose father was majority leader in the Maryland Senate when Boone's father was speaker of the House.

Nearly every day in court, Boone will interrupt an attorney to ask where a defendant went to school.

"You go to high school?" the judge asked a 23-year-old defendant in October, the "high" sounding more like "hah."

"Yes. Milford Mill, sir," the defendant answered.

"You graduate?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, that means you've got a head on your shoulders. Now use it." The judge glared.

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