Judge Steps Off, And Then Back On, The Bench

Loney, Known For Work In Family Law, Is Back Part Time After A Brief Retirement

July 26, 2009|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

Michael E. Loney took a long weekend of forced retirement when the calendar shoved him out of his judicial chambers.

"I am statutorily senile," he said, referring to the state's requirement that judges retire when they reach age 70.

After 19-plus years on the bench, Loney packed up his judicial chambers on the fourth floor of the Anne Arundel County Courthouse and was gone July 16. Five days later, he was back. Like many judges around the state, he is working part time in retirement - balancing golf, travel and work around the house with work at the courthouse.

Lawyers say they are relieved that he is helping to settle cases behind the scenes and occasionally in the courtroom.

"He is a gentleman. He is just known as one of these fair and fine people," said Gene Whissel, a longtime lawyer in Annapolis.

Lawyers speak of his demeanor as an artful balance: patience, diplomacy and soft voice, coupled with clarity and direct words. The upshot, they say, is that their clients believe they have been treated well and their issues heard, even if they dislike Loney's decisions.

"It's an awkward combination. Not everyone can be diplomatic yet clear at the same time," said Annapolis lawyer Stephen Krohn.

Loney said his perspective is different: "For the last 20 years, the only courtroom I was in was mine. So I'm the smartest judge there. There's nobody to tell me I'm not."

Still, he said, it's a fantastic learning experience. A judge relies on lawyers to know their cases and case law. There's a lot to learn about people, there's criticism from the public in high-profile cases, and judges learn from seeing their rulings overturned on appeal.

Loney takes a particular interest in family law, a field avoided by many lawyers because divorce and custody cases are often emotional and some warring ex-partners return to court for years. But family matters, including adoptions, account for more than half of the court's daily work.

"It is an opportunity to help a lot of people - and children," he said.

The changing nature of family law - along with teaching it to University of Baltimore law students and in continuing education classes to practicing lawyers - keeps him doing legal research.

"Every bench needs someone who knows family law like Judge Loney," Krohn said.

Particularly noteworthy is his handling of adoptions, said attorney John R. Greene. He "understands that it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Greene said.

Each family can speak about the significance to them. Loney mingles with them after the ceremony, and when Spanish-speaking youngsters are part of new families, he talks to them in Spanish - a language he took up as an adult - to help them feel at ease, Greene said.

The Spanish helps in another way: He volunteers with dentists to provide free dental care in poor, rural areas of Latin America, translating and pitching in wherever needed.

He also was in charge for more than four years of management for family cases, a role that pushes to ensure that cases don't languish in limbo. Last year, Loney said, only one scheduled case was not reached.

"He did a hell of a good job," said Robert C. Wallace, the court administrator.

Loney said resolving a family matter benefits everyone involved.

"Most of us, no matter what the problem in life is, can deal with it once it is decided," Loney said.

But he's had his share of other types of cases.

He was the drug court judge from its inception in 2004 until June, helping to get the court treatment program off the ground.

"He is no-nonsense. That's what it takes for the people who are in drug court, it takes somebody the defendants are going to fear," said Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee. Defendants saw Loney mete out sanctions and praise, jail some among them and graduate others from the intensive program that aims to turn drug offenders into job-holding taxpayers who support families.

"It's like keeping 85 plates spinning. Every day there's a fire that has to be put out. People reoffend, there are problems," he said.

The drug court has graduated about 35 people and returned about the same number to prison, which Loney said has been both rewarding and painful.

He presided over one of the widely publicized criminal matters the county court saw in recent years: the sentencing in 2006 of Linda Lee Nichols, who, in a drunken haze, crashed her pickup into a stopped car, killing two of the three teenagers inside. More than 300 people, many of them teens, attended, so that Loney authorized a closed-circuit feed of the hearing for the overflow crowd. It was, he said, important for the community to see how the court handles such a heartbreaking case, and for friends of the dead youths to be included. The five-year prison term he handed down was seen as both too short and longer than most sentences for drunken-driving fatalities.

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