Praise, good wishes for a new appointee

Judge: Clayton Greene Jr., the governor's popular choice for the Court of Appeals, hears himself hailed as `the best.'

January 08, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

When a judge steps in front of a packed room, someone is usually going to be disappointed. But yesterday, there were only applause, kisses and backslaps all around for Judge Clayton Greene Jr.

As more than 120 friends, relatives and supporters jammed into a State House reception room, Greene was officially appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to a seat on Maryland's highest court.

With easy Senate confirmation predicted by that chamber's president, Greene, 52, is set to become the third African-American in the more than 300-year history of the Court of Appeals, and the fourth to serve at each level of the judiciary.

Ehrlich praised Greene's "intellect, ability, experience, ... class, dignity, philosophical orientation, and judicial temperament. ... Judge Greene has it all. He's the entire package."

Greene, who sits on the Court of Special Appeals, the state's second-highest court, was roundly hailed by others as well, and when it came his turn at the podium, said he was overwhelmingly grateful for the support.

"You don't get this kind support sometimes until you are laid out in a box," he said jokingly.

Greene credited everyone from his parents -- school custodians nearing six decades of marriage -- to his secretary for helping him on the road to the state's highest court.

"I have this great passion for the law, but I have a greater passion for people," Greene added. "I didn't get here without help."

But others note that he has worked hard along the way, and that his legal skills and knowledge are formidable.

A Glen Burnie native who polished the floors of his former school, Freetown Elementary, to earn money, the Northeast High School graduate turned down a free education at the Air Force Academy during the Vietnam War era. He worked his way through the University of Maryland, College Park and through the University of Maryland School of Law.

Greene served as a public defender in Anne Arundel County and spent eight years on that county's District Court bench before moving to the county Circuit Court in 1995. In January 2002, he was sworn in on the Court of Special Appeals, where he developed a reputation for being tough but fair.

As the administrative judge for the county's district and circuit courts and former member of the judiciary's rulemaking body, Greene brings a "healthy sense of perspective," said Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., chief of the Court of Special Appeals.

"The best -- he is the best man for the job," said Davidsonville lawyer Timothy D. Murnane, a Republican.

Greene is considered as approachable after 16 years on the bench as he was as a novice in the public defender's office. He took ribbing yesterday that he has so many friends and colleagues that his swearing-in will have to be held in the Baltimore Convention Center.

Greene said he is hoping his investiture can be set for Jan. 22, his 53rd birthday. He is expected to make his debut in the court's traditional red robe at the February court session.

Greene said he does not have strongly held positions on the kinds of issues that typically land at the state's highest court. He has, for example, never heard a death penalty case. But he said he strongly believes that hard work, staying out of trouble and keeping a focus pay off.

He is considered a moderate and not an activist on the bench. Nevertheless, as the administrative judge for Anne Arundel County, he pushed to establish one of the state's first juvenile drug courts there.

His first appellate court assignment was to the Court of Special Appeals, which handles about 1,900 appeals a year. Typically, no more than 200 of them are "reported," meaning lawyers can cite them as precedents.

In his two years on the 13-member court, Greene wrote 240 opinions. Of those, 11 were "reported." They span a variety of legal topics -- administrative, divorce and criminal, for example. And they tend to get to the point in short order.

Asked to describe his judicial philosophy, Greene replied, "fairness, to think about the issues, to bring clarity" to difficult situations. "What's very important about the whole process is approaching it with the right analysis and reaching the right result," he said.

The last time a Republican governor of Maryland chose a judge for the state's top court was 36 years ago, during the administration of Spiro T. Agnew, said state Archivist Edward C. Papenfuse. Judge Marvin H. Smith served from 1968 to 1986.

Greene is hardly a stranger to the Ehrlichs. The governor's wife, Kendel Ehrlich, is a former public defender who thought well of Greene when she practiced in front of him.

His appointment fills a vacancy on the seven-member court created last year when Judge John C. Eldridge retired after nearly 30 years. By pulling a judge from the lower court, Ehrlich has created another vacancy he must fill.

Republicans and Democrats supported Greene's appointment. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he expects easy Senate confirmation for Greene. "In my opinion, he was a fairly tough sentencing judge, and he dispenses justice equally and fairly," Miller said.

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell has been one of Greene's boosters. He said Greene will add to the kind of analytical work the court does -- but also to the increasingly important administrative work of the court.

"He brings a lot of intellect and common sense, the ability to cut to the quick, an ability to analyze these tough legal issues," said Bell. "He makes it a better court."

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