Court Adjourned

Baltimore City's three recently retired circuit judges recall the satisfactions and frustrations of a collective 64 years of service

December 03, 2006|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun Reporter

By the time Judge Joseph P. McCurdy stepped off the bench and packed up his robe Thursday, the Baltimore Circuit Court had shed 64 years of experience in less than two months.

McCurdy, a judge for 15 years, was the third of three prominent senior city judges to retire this fall. Chief Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan left Oct. 1, taking with him nearly 29 years, and Chief Judge Clifton T. Gordy left Nov. 7 with 21 years.

By state law, judges must retire at age 70. These three retired earlier.

Kaplan left a few months before his 70th birthday in part so that his friend Gordy could become the city Circuit Court's first black chief judge, a ceremonial title bestowed upon the longest-serving of the judges.

Gordy, 60, said he'd always planned to retire at this age. And McCurdy, 66, is stepping down now because his 15-year term expires next fall, and he said he didn't want to go through the rigors of campaigning only to serve a few years more.

On one of his final house-cleaning days, in the hallway outside the Courthouse East chambers that he helped design, Kaplan pointed to a train of small trash bins placed in the hallway for him. He'd filled them with file folders from old court cases and programs from his 25-plus judicial conferences.

"It makes me kind of sad to dump all of that stuff," Kaplan said. "But I know I'll never look at it again."

Perhaps the bench's best-known judge, Kaplan has had a career deeply woven into the city's history.

In the 1980s, he oversaw receivership cases resulting from the Old Court Savings and Loan scandal. For more than 10 years - and he has the boxes to show for it - he oversaw three lawsuits over the state funding of city public schools.

And as a juvenile judge in the late 1990s, he was charged with granting or denying guardianship in "children in need of assistance" cases - some of which went on to become sad headlines.

Gordy and McCurdy also presided over some of the city's most notorious cases.

Gordy handled a fight over huge fees Peter G. Angelos asked for after the state's lawsuit with the tobacco industry. And a pair of Angelos' class-action lead paint lawsuits filled McCurdy's courtroom with lawyers for about five years.

Along the way, the judges have touched countless lives. Kaplan alone has employed 44 law clerks over the years, and thousands of defendants have been in their courtrooms.

"My favorite part of being a judge was when I'd bump into somebody, maybe on the street or at Lexington Market during lunch, and they'd tell me that I changed their life," Gordy said. "Maybe I ordered them into drug treatment or gave them custody of a child or even sent them to prison.

"Most people don't approach me like that. But those who do - that makes it worth the long hours."

In the waning days of their full-time careers, the judges seemed ready to embrace retirement.

Kaplan bade farewell with a hotel party in October attended by more than 500 well-wishers, Gordy quickly set sail on a cruise for Hawaii ("part of my retirement package for me," he said) and McCurdy talked joyously about his plans to settle in Chestertown, a peaceful Eastern Shore alternative to decades of city living.

All three said they wanted to return as visiting judges. They expressed an interest in mediation, a less costly dispute resolution method than trials. And they vowed to pick up long-ago-lost hobbies and spend more time with family.

Kaplan, married 43 years with three adult children, promised not to let his retirement interfere with his wife Joy's long-established daily routine. McCurdy, who also has three adult children and a wife, Bonnie, of 43 years, said he'd paint landscapes. And Gordy is eager to visit his first grandchild in Austin, Texas, born to one of his two adult daughters.

The departing judges said they're glad for an infusion of youth into the bench (though Kaplan's replacement, Judge Charles G. Bernstein, turns 67 next month).

Other recent additions to the 32-member bench are in their 40s and early 50s. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has not named replacements for Gordy and McCurdy, but that is sure to happen before he turns over the reins to Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley.

"There's a reason why we have to retire at 70," McCurdy said. "It's not always that we're senile, but there is the element of wear and tear. There's a need for a fresh outlook."

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