More than 1,200 attorneys, judges, political dignitaries, and other members of Maryland’s legal community turned out on April 18 at the Hilton Baltimore to honor the 50 year legacy of Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, Court of Appeals of Maryland, who will retire from the bench this summer.
MSBA and the Friends of the Honorable Robert M. Bell Committee sponsored the gala, the first half of a two-day event celebrating a career particularly notable for its subject’s lifelong advocacy of equality and access to justice.
MSBA President John P. Kudel joined a host of dignitaries representing every branch of state government and subset of the state’s legal profession in praising Bell, who will step down this July upon reaching the judiciary’s mandatory retirement age of 70. Kudel emphasized Bell’s pronounced visibility during his 17 years as the state’s top-ranking judge.
“Chief Judge Bell has never been [isolated] in an ivory tower, and he has always been accessible,” said Kudel, noting Bell’s ubiquity at events and programs across the state, from the MSBA’s Annual Meeting to its yearly Law Day Conference.
Other distinguished guests, including Governor Martin O’Malley, U.S. Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, as well as fellow judges representing all four levels of the Maryland courts, in turn each heralded Bell for his efforts in promoting equality throughout the justice system, particularly for women and minorities.
The gala was but one component of a two-day retirement celebration, rounded out by a half-day legal symposium, held on April 19 at the same location, that depicted highlights of Bell’s illustrious career – from high school to Harvard Law School to service on all four levels of Maryland’s courts – as a microcosm very much reflective of the times during which it has played out.
Approximately 300 people attended the symposium, entitled “Access to Justice: Five Decades of Change in Maryland and the Impact on America”, which explored the American legal and social landscape through the lens of Bell’s experience, broken down into roughly three epochs: the 1960s-1970s (“Protest and Reform: the Rise of Legal Services”); the 1980s-1990s (“Progress and Retrenchment: Maryland’s Impact on Criminal Justice”); and post-2000 (“Courts and Community”).
Following welcoming remarks from Dean Phoebe Haddon, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and Dean Ronald Weich, University of Baltimore School of Law, as well as introductions from the Honorable Toni E. Clarke, Circuit Court for Prince George’s County, and the Honorable Pamila J. Brown, District Court for Howard County, University of Baltimore School of Law Professor Gilbert Holmes led the opening panel discussion, beginning with Bell’s 1960 sit-in at the whites-only Hooper’s Restaurant in downtown Baltimore. During the question-and-answer session, Bell admitted that as a 16-year-old student at the city’s Dunbar High School, he “had no idea of the legal ramifications” of his actions,” only that he “thought it was the right thing to do” in the context of the “raw, naked hate” that permeated American society at the time.
After high school, Bell went on to attend Morgan State University (whose Center for Civil Rights in Education was renamed in Bell’s honor in 2010), followed by Harvard. In 1975, he was appointed to the bench of the District Court for Baltimore City, where he served before ascending to the city’s Circuit Court in 1980. Four years later, Bell was appointed to the state’s Court of Special Appeals, where he served until 1991, when he was appointed to the Court of Appeals of Maryland. In 1996, he succeeded longtime Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy.
Professor Jose Anderson, University of Baltimore School of Law, moderated the next panel, which included fellow UB Law Professors F. Michael Higginbotham and Byron Warnken, as well as University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law Professor Renee Hutchins, the Honorable Joseph Murphy, Maryland Court of Appeals (ret.), and Professor Tanya Washington of the Georgia State University College of Law. Warnken praised Bell’s work during that period in advancing voir dire, while Hutchins lauded his efforts to establish legal representation for the state’s indigent population.
Washington, a former law clerk for Bell during his tenure as Chief Judge, noted that, while her former boss could “cultivate consensus” sometimes leading to unanimous decisions, he has proven himself equally comfortable in being the lone voice of dissent. Murphy, who served with Bell during his tenure on the bench of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, concurred, calling Bell’s handling of the most sensitive of cases “eloquent” and “brilliant.” And for his dedication to furthering equality of justice, particularly within racial and gender contexts, Higginbotham said, “I think all Americans owe Judge Bell a huge debt of gratitude.”
The third panel – moderated by UM Law Professor Deborah Eisenberg – focused on Bell’s efforts in the 21st century toward advancing justice on the community level through “specialty courts,” such as those dedicated to matters involving drugs and juvenile justice, as well as alternatives like alternative dispute resolution and mediation. Particularly through his promotion of the latter, panelist Rachel Wohl, Executive Director of the Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office (MACRO), said Maryland is now nationally regarded as a “model state in mediation and conflict resolution.” The Honorable Neil Axel (ret.), District Court for Howard County, praised Bell’s commitment to fostering a “non-adversarial system” within a traditionally adversarial arena.
Bell called the event, which ended with closing remarks from UM Law Professor of Judicial Process William L. Reynolds, an “overwhelming experience.”
Bar Bulletin Editor Bryan Nichols contributed to this story.