Circuit judge ends 25 years on the bench

Burns turns 70 Tuesday

law says he must retire

`I certainly have given my all'

Former law clerks credit him with shaping careers

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

Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. ended 25 years on the bench in Carroll County on Friday 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 that was convicted of raping an elementary-school-aged 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 was required by state law to retire before his 70th birthday, a milestone he will reach 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 in an interview 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'd had more than two months working with him.

Burns started Friday morning as any other, reading several newspapers and drinking a Coke. 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 seven-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 been packing up his office, he would have added the photo to the gallery of adoption photographs he had sitting around 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 Law School in 1964, the 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 appointed as an associate judge of the Circuit Court for Carroll County in September 1979.

He had only 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. "He made a big impression. He emphasizes the importance of weighing both sides and being compassionate."

Jones said her children adopted Burns as a grandfather, calling him "Judgie." Burns had kept a drawing from Jones' youngest son on his door for the past decade.

Jones said Burns helped baby-sit her three children when she had to be in court. She also recalled the gourmet-quality pies that Burns made for his family and friends.

Jones' children still look around for Burns when "someone says `Hi Judge.' They don't think people are talking to me," she said.

Burns' expression softens when he talks about children, relishing his role as the designated judge for handling adoptions in Carroll County. In his office, he showed off a snapshot of five unrelated children who are now part of one family. It was just one of hundreds of adoptions he has overseen since 1984.

While he enjoys finalizing adoptions, he assumes a more somber stance when presiding over criminal cases, such as the high-profile William H. Hyde trial last year. In that case, Burns found the former Carroll schools superintendent guilty of raping and sexually abusing a young girl.

Burns said he knew that when he sentenced Hyde to 18 months in jail, it would not be a popular decision.

"To decide a case based upon your own sense of what is just, considering all the circumstances, is the most important quality a judge should have," said Judge Michael M. Galloway. "Judge Burns has this ability to cut through the clutter and really zero in on what the real issues are."

Burns helped Galloway when the newest member of the Circuit Court was appointed four years ago.

Circuit Court Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. said that when he began hearing cases 15 years ago, Burns took the time to sit in on his cases and offer advice.

"He's got such a wealth of experiences to draw from after 25 years. I'll miss him a lot," Beck said.

Former law clerk Peter J. Korzenewski, who finished a year and four months with Burns last fall, appeared before the judge for the first time in a criminal case Thursday.

"My friends who clerked elsewhere were jealous of me," Korzenewski said. "He was so patient and so willing to help you learn. He was every bit a teacher as he was a judge."

It won't be the last time Korzenewski and other attorneys see Burns, who can come back to the bench for 100 days every year as a visiting judge overseeing cases.

But Burns is looking forward to his retirement.

He said that since his days will be 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 is 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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