Ex-umpire Harris game for judgeship

Bench: Former private practice attorney takes a seat on the Anne Arundel Circuit Court today.

December 17, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Back in the 1980s, Paul F. Harris held what he calls his "first judicial position." He was an umpire for the Lake Shore Little League.

Parents and coaches yelled at him, he recalled. Kids looked devastated. He couldn't please everyone, but he had to know the rules and apply them fairly.

It is, he said, a lesson he carries with him as he assumes a new judicial role today, on the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court bench.

"A good judge should probably be seen and not heard as much as possible -- like a good umpire," he said.

Harris, 56, will become the first judge in recent memory in the county to go directly from private practice to election to the bench in a contested race. He has spent the past month as a matchmaker, directing clients to new lawyers, closing his Glen Burnie practice of 29 years.

Though his is a general law practice, in recent years its focus has been on family issues, which make up half the court's cases. Harris told voters that his diverse practice gave him a breadth of experience that some candidates lacked.

`Different perspective'

Longtime friend and lawyer Michael F. Gilligan, a Democrat and former Anne Arundel County Council member from Glen Burnie, said that Harris is used to working hard, and that his tenure in private practice gives him an appreciation for what is involved in keeping a law business thriving.

"It gives you a different perspective, I think, when you have to pay a mortgage, pay for your equipment, when you have to pay your help every week," said Gilligan, a Democrat.

Harris campaigned hard in the six-way nonpartisan race. He greeted strangers at fairs, went door to door in areas where he knew no one, spoke at civic meetings, attended candidates nights and, although a Republican, introduced himself at Democratic clubs.

"I was everywhere," said Harris of Pasadena. "I just outhustled everyone else."

He followed the grass-roots campaign script laid out by a friend, Robert N. Dugan, who won a judgeship on the Baltimore County Circuit Court in 2000.

Dugan is expected to speak at Harris' swearing-in ceremony. They met more than 20 years ago. Dugan said he was impressed by Harris' professionalism and gentlemanly advocacy.

"He is a very personable and outgoing guy who has roots in the community. I think when voters saw Paul, they saw a person they liked, and thought, `If I have to go into court one day as a witness or a litigant or a juror, I would like to go in front of Paul,'" Dugan said. "I think he is the perfect example of why circuit court judges have to be elected."

Of the ticket of appointed judges seeking to retain their seats -- David S. Bruce, Michele D. Jaklitsch and Rodney C. Warren -- only Jaklitsch prevailed in the November election. Paul G. Goetzke, counsel to the mayor of Annapolis, came in first; Stephen P. Beatty, an assistant public defender in Baltimore, was sixth.

The challengers did not seek selection in 2002 by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Harris came in third in the November race. In the heavily Democratic northern end of the county, he appealed mostly on two fronts. He had wide name recognition from his law practice and Little League -- youngsters he coached now vote -- as well as years of speaking to domestic violence victims at YWCA seminars. He reminded voters that he was the only longtime lawyer from the northern part of the county on the ballot.

"The fact that I was a local guy was a big advantage to me," Harris said.

He also had the backing of a number of lawyers, especially in the Glen Burnie area, who broke with the bar association's policy of supporting sitting judges.

Among them was Patrick M. Smith, who described Harris as "fair-minded." Whether working with Harris or opposing him on cases, Smith said, Harris was always "cooperative, willing to listen and share ideas."

Career capper

Harris considers himself firm but fair, and has been described by others as having a somewhat conservative outlook.

Raised in Catonsville, he went to Loyola College on a partial baseball scholarship, but never considered a sports career because, he said, "I can't hit." (He has turned to golf, and has a 10 handicap.)

He has lived in Anne Arundel County since his graduation from the University of Baltimore Law School in 1975.

He sought the judgeship in part as a "cap to my career." By 2002, he was disenchanted with the politics of judicial appointments. He took to heart friends' prodding that he run, thinking he would enjoy switching from advocacy to referee and decision-maker.

His campaign spent less than $50,000, and lawyers who know him said he is not given to extravagances.

He and his wife, Connie, have been married 25 years and have three sons.

Among his soon-to-be-former clients is a man who Harris said told him he did not vote for him because he did not want to lose his lawyer.

Added Harris: "I said, `It's good I didn't lose by one vote.'"

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