Tough questioner prepares to step down

Judge Eldridge, 70, set to leave appeals bench, plays down the `hoopla'

November 13, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Judge John C. Eldridge was in fine, querying form -- some might call it curmudgeonly -- as he posed question after question to the lawyer standing behind the lectern, desperate to get his point across in 30 minutes or less.

Eldridge was insistent, impatient even, when the lawyer attempted a dodge.

"Answer my question," he interrupted, his voice gruff and gravelly, from his elevated post among the red-robed judges of Maryland's Court of Appeals.

This was classic Eldridge questioning: the rapid-fire probing into gray areas of law and procedure. It's so much a part and parcel of the judge's style that one of his former law clerks, hearing that Eldridge was sitting on the bench one day, said jokingly, "Did he have anyone for breakfast?"

And it's about to become a rarer sight.

After nearly 30 years on Maryland's highest appellate bench, Eldridge is retiring today. The Annapolis-area resident has little choice because it's his 70th birthday, a milestone that, under Maryland law, makes him too old to serve.

But he insists that for the short term, he isn't going any farther than the third floor of the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal Building. He has opinions to write, and -- until his replacement is named -- a regular seat on the seven-member bench.

Even after someone fills his seat, he said, he expects to fill in many days, as needed, as a retired judge on the state's two appellate benches.

Today means little to him, then: "The only thing is the hoopla about it," he said with a gruff laugh.

But those who worked closely with Eldridge insist the "hoopla" is well-deserved. The Baltimore-area native and 1959 University of Maryland School of Law graduate has a brilliant legal mind and has been a key player in creating and evaluating Maryland law since the late 1960s, they say.

After all, it was Jack Eldridge, who as chief legislative officer to former Gov. Marvin Mandel in the early 1970s, helped to craft many state laws, some of which he would later interpret from the bench.

And it was Eldridge who wrote some of the state's high-profile opinions striking down juvenile curfew laws, ruling that the governor's phone and office appointment records were public record and declaring that white people cannot be excluded from juries based on race.

He also wrote a national first -- an opinion that allowed victims of gun violence to sue those who make or market cheap guns called Saturday night specials, weapons he said are useless for anything but committing crimes.

"I can't imagine him actually not doing the law," said U.S. Department of Justice lawyer Anne Murphy, who sought out a clerkship with Eldridge in the mid-1990s after reading the Saturday night-special opinion. "It's so integral to who he is and how he operates."

Eldridge, married and the father of two, honed his craft working two years as a clerk for another noted Maryland judge, Simon E. Sobeloff, then the chief judge of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals before moving to the civil appellate section of the U.S. Department of Justice. That job allowed him to argue federal cases across the country.

By 1969, Mandel was the state's chief executive and was ready to push an aggressive legislative agenda that would ultimately result in the creation of the state's District Court system and the reorganization of state government and in laws that governed the environment and reformed insurance. The governor tapped Eldridge to be the point man who would craft the legislation.

`One of the brightest'

When Court of Appeals Judge William J. McWilliams retired, Eldridge applied and Mandel enthusiastically named him to the seat -- just a few minutes after learning his aide had been nominated for the job. Eldridge was 40 when he took the bench Jan. 7, 1974.

"He had one of the brightest legal minds I ever talked to, and I think his service on the Court of Appeals has demonstrated that," Mandel said recently.

The appointment, which was opposed by the Anne Arundel County bar, caused charges of political cronyism and spurred another Court of Appeals judge, Wilson K. Barnes Sr., to resign in protest.

But newspaper editorials lauded Eldridge's legal ability, and friends and colleagues say that he has proven his worth in nearly three decades on the court.

"He's certainly not been opposed to sticking his chin out there," said Glen Burnie lawyer T. Joseph Touhey, who worked as Eldridge's assistant in Mandel's office in 1969 and 1970. "And for that I admire him because he takes some stands, at times, that are not considered popular."

His time on the court has been distinguished by liberal-leaning opinions that rely heavily on legal history and centuries-old English common law and demonstrate his passion for Maryland law and the rights afforded under the state constitution, colleagues, court observers and former law clerks say.

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