Carroll County judge retiring

Burns, who turns turn 70 Tuesday, presided over ex-school chief's case

January 25, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. ended 25 years on the bench in Carroll County presiding over the kind of case he loved best - legally joining children with families who wanted to adopt them.

The adoption cases are in sharp contrast to his most recent criminal cases, including the trials of a former county schools superintendent who was convicted of raping an elementary-school-age girl and of a woman found guilty of arranging the murder of her husband for his $100,000 life insurance policy.

As with all Circuit Court judges, Burns is required by state law to retire before his 70th birthday, a milestone he reaches on Tuesday.

When he left the court Friday, he did so with a reputation as an even-keeled and fair-minded judge who understood the burden of the bench, especially when he made decisions that went against public opinion.

"I've tried to be eminently fair in any case - the little ones all the way up to the big ones - and I hope I have been," Burns said last week. "I certainly know I can't please everybody. That's totally impossible. But I certainly have given my all in trying to get things right."

During his tenure, Burns presided over civil cases, such as medical malpractice lawsuits, as well as an array of criminal cases, rotating between the two dockets.

Burns explained his approach to his job. "You cannot show favoritism. You have to restrain your emotions to give a fair trial, even when sometimes you're on the verge of tears," he said.

Former law clerks who later became attorneys have argued cases before him, and one clerk became a District Court judge in the county. They all said they would miss the mentor who helped shape their careers.

His most recent law clerk, Lea Meyer, said she wished she had had more than two months working with him.

Burns started Friday morning as any other, reading several newspapers and drinking a can of cola. Then he walked from the judge's chambers and appeared through a back door to ascend to the bench.

After he legalized the adoption of a 7-month-old African-American girl to two white parents, he asked to hold the baby as her new family gathered around him to take a picture.

If he hadn't begun packing up his office, he would have added the photo to the gallery of adoption photographs he had had in his chambers.

A Baltimore native, Burns received his undergraduate degree from Fordham University in New York and his law degree from the University of Baltimore School of Law in 1964, the same year he was admitted to the Maryland Bar Association.

He moved to Carroll County and practiced law as a trial attorney for the Westminster law firm of Hoff and Stoner before being appointed to Carroll's District Court.

Burns was later appointed an associate judge of the Circuit Court for Carroll County in September 1979.

He had been in that position for two years when JoAnn M. Ellinghaus-Jones came to work for him as a law clerk. Now a District Court judge in Carroll County, she said that her two-year tenure with Burns prompted her to pursue a career on the bench.

"It was not something I ever thought about before I went to work for him," Jones said.

Burns can come back to the bench for 100 days every year as a visiting judge overseeing cases. But he said he is looking forward to his retirement.

He said that once his days are free, he plans to spend more time in the greenhouse that he and his wife built in their back yard.

And he'll have more time for his two children and five grandchildren. He's also looking forward to getting on the golf course - as soon as his knee heals from surgery he had last fall.

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