Leaving a legacy of wisdom and wit

James B. Dudley, known for his quips, retires from Circuit Court next week

December 26, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

As Howard County Circuit Judge James B. Dudley recently sentenced a repeat drunken-driving offender who was accused of drinking 10 beers before driving from Atlantic City, N.J., he told the man: "We can't have you imitating a cicada and coming out with your alcoholism every 17 years."

Known for memorable quips in the courtroom, Dudley sentenced the man to 60 days in jail and told him the public's reward for obeying the law is the "pleasure of seeing people who misbehave punished."

It's a message that Dudley, 67, has been preaching for nearly two decades. But as of Jan. 7, he will retire.

"My goal has always been to reinforce people who behave by ensuring that there is a punishment for people who misbehave," Dudley said recently while sitting in his chambers with almost-empty bookshelves.

Dudley - whose last day on the bench was Dec. 10 because he used vacation time at the end of his career - has served on the Howard Circuit Court bench since 1988, leaving a legacy as a stern, outspoken judge.

After 44 years of working, Dudley said it was time to retire.

"I'm going to spend a little time with my wife and do some traveling and see what happens," he said.

Born in Escanaba, Mich., Dudley graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1965 and entered the legal profession as a probation officer. He then served as a prosecutor for seven years in the Baltimore state's attorney's office, where he later was chief of the trial division. After that, he went into private practice.

In 1988, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed Dudley as a District Court judge, and he became a circuit judge less than a year later.

"We certainly will miss his hard work, his dedication, his sense of humor," said Judge Diane O. Leasure, the Circuit Court's administrative judge.

However, Dudley won't be completely absent from the courthouse. He has offered to preside over some trials, possibly civil cases that last one day, if the court needs his services.

Fifteen people have applied to fill Dudley's seat. The Judicial Nominating Commission is scheduled to interview the applicants Jan. 11 and then offer its recommendations to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who will select a judge at a time of his choosing.

The appointed judge will then have to run for election in 2006 for a 15-year term.

While serving on the bench, Dudley said he wanted people to take away a message from the sentences that he imposes, and he often told defendants that he would hand down the same punishment to his mother or son. He wants to hold people responsible for their behavior as well as make them understand the seriousness of being placed on probation.

"I want them, when I put them on probation, to not come back," Dudley said. "This is not a good place to come back to."

William V. Tucker, a master in chancery who served as Dudley's law clerk in 1991, said that message was well received by defendants and lawyers.

"Defendants know you've got to be afraid of him, and he will tell you, `If you violate [probation], bring your toothbrush,'" Tucker said. "And everyone knows that."

Dudley's outspoken behavior has also landed him in trouble.

In 2001, the state Court of Appeals ruled that Dudley went too far when sentencing a man convicted of first-degree assault and a related gun charge. He told him that Columbia attracts "rotten apples" from Baltimore who act as though they live in a "ghetto" and that "people moved out here" to get away from people like the defendant.

The high court voided the 18-year prison sentence that Dudley had imposed and returned the case to the Howard Circuit Court for sentencing by a different judge. The defendant received a 14-year sentence from the new judge.

"He does a lot of times speak his mind, and it has come back to bite him or haunt him," Tucker said. "But that's one thing I respect about him: You know where he's coming from."

Assistant Public Defender Janette DeBoissiere said that Dudley holds everyone, including himself, to a high standard. And she always enjoyed trying cases in front of him, despite his gruff exterior.

"Judge Dudley's reputation in Howard County for being a tough judge caused him to be feared by defendants and by some attorneys," she said. "But he was always fair."

Dudley also had a reputation for his unwavering commitment to the law and the seriousness with which he viewed legal proceedings.

For instance, in 1997 Dudley had a serious asthma attack while awaiting a jury to reach a verdict. He used a nebulizer and had someone call paramedics but would not leave until the jury returned. And when the jury went back to the courtroom, the members saw Dudley sitting at the bench next to a paramedic and an oxygen tank.

Lutherville defense attorney Joseph Murtha, Dudley's first law clerk in 1989, said he's grateful that he had the opportunity to start his legal career working for Dudley, who taught him how to "think like a lawyer."

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