Judge fills Circuit post

Ehrlich pick Stansfield will serve until Nov. 2006

`The last of a dying breed'

Practice, work as master valuable, colleagues say

August 29, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Wearing his signature bow tie and glasses, Thomas F. Stansfield was sworn in to fill the last seat on Carroll County's Circuit Court bench.

About 200 lawyers, courthouse staff members and elected officials poured into the new Scott Center auditorium at Carroll Community College on Friday and gave a standing ovation to the newest member of Carroll's judiciary.

"Among the lessons most of us are taught as children is to be careful what you wish for because you might get it," Stansfield said at his acceptance speech.

Stansfield, 54, will serve until the November 2006 election, when he is expected to run for a 15-year term.

When Judges Luke K. Burns Jr. and Raymond E. Beck Sr. retired this year, they opened nearly back-to-back vacancies in Carroll's Circuit Court. In April, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. appointed J. Barry Hughes to fill Burns' seat. The governor chose Stansfield last month to replace Beck.

Burns and Beck were among 11 judges who joined Stansfield onstage for the ceremony.

"In Tom's case, his service to the bar and to the community is part of his outstanding work as a master for 12 years," said Joseph F. Murphy, chief judge of the state Court of Special Appeals. Murphy emphasized Stansfield's reputation for thoughtful analysis, patience and treating others with dignity and respect.

Stansfield has said that being a court-appointed domestic master since 1992 - hearing civil disputes involving divorce and custody issues, among other cases - has prepared him for the judgeship.

As a master, Stansfield conducted hearings, weighed the facts and issued written opinions.

In recent years, he has handled mostly civil cases in his private practice, he said, leaving the criminal cases to his wife and law partner, Martha Ann Sitterding.

Sitterding proudly stood by as her husband was sworn in and later helped him put on his robe.

She will take over their practice.

Practical, but a joker

At Friday's ceremony, Stansfield's friend, Westminster lawyer Charles D. Hollman, told stories about how Stansfield earned the nickname "The Snake" - not because of his litigation or negotiation tactics, but for his practical jokes.

"Uncle Tommy" was known, he said, for buying his friends' children animals and toys that were destined to wreak havoc in the household: 5,000-piece Lego sets, fingerpaint or water colors, pet rodents and the occasional pregnant cat.

Judges' backing

Before the ceremony, judges were backstage catching up with each another. Judge Michael M. Galloway, the most senior member of the county's Circuit Court with five years on the bench, said the appointment of his long-time friend was an exciting development.

"He is a consummate professional, a gentleman," Galloway said. "He's probably the last of a dying breed - a true general practitioner who's done everything from administrative to criminal to domestic cases."

Galloway said that with Stansfield on board, it will be a good opportunity for the new three-man team to "tweak the system," adding that he doesn't think it will result in any major changes.

Stansfield's appointment ends the fill-in rotations by retired judges Francis M. Arnold and Burns.

"We've been very lucky to have Judge Arnold and Judge Burns, who must have felt at times like they weren't really retired," Galloway said.

`Something new'

Stansfield spent most of his last week in his law practice trying to unearth his desk, he said.

"It's very hectic. What you have to do is shake all of your practice up and refer to other counsel," he said. "But I'm looking forward to basically a brand new career."

Stansfield has missed the last scheduled judicial orientation that most new judges undergo, but he said he will take things slow, observing the criminal dockets of the other two judges.

"You miss something you've been doing for 28 years regularly, but on the other hand, this is something new, something different," he said. "It's a high honor to be a judge. You approach it with that in mind.

"There's a tremendous responsibility. A judge is the guarantor that justice occurs. If you treat that seriously, it's an awesome responsibility."

Career path

A native of Carroll County, Stansfield spent his childhood in Gamber and lives in Westminster. A graduate of Westminster High School, he also earned a bachelor's degree from what is now Towson University and a law degree from South Texas College of Law.

He began practicing law in Carroll County in 1976. For two decades, he served as Taneytown's city attorney until he opened the private practice four years ago with his wife.

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