Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell is ready to go. After almost four decades on the bench, he is set to retire in June when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.
And he’s fine with that.
As his days on the bench tick down, he is looking back at his contribution, but with his characteristic reserve. He’s a little impatient with the whole end-of-career accolade thing, like the symposium and retirement gala scheduled for April 18 and 19 in his honor in Baltimore.
But those who know him are ecstatic that he will be feted in style.
“It has been my pleasure to know Judge Bell for more than three decades,” said former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, vice president and general counsel at Howard University in Washington D.C. “We worked at the same law firm when we were both young lawyers, and it was there that I saw his commitment to use the law not only to serve his clients, but also to improve society. His career as an excellent lawyer has been an inspiration to countless members of the profession in Maryland and throughout the country.”
Making sure that justice was accessible to everyone has been Bell’s mission. He has served as a judge for the District Court of Maryland, the Baltimore City Circuit Court, the Court of Special Appeals and, since 1996, he has held the title of chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals.
Born in rural North Carolina, Bell attended Baltimore public schools after his family relocated. He was a student at Dunbar High School when integrationists recruited students to stage sit-ins. On June 17, 1960, Bell—unbeknown to his mother—was among a group of Dunbar and then-Morgan State College students who entered Hooper’s Restaurant and asked to be served. Twelve students refused to leave, including Bell, then 16, and were taken to jail, charged with trespassing, found guilty and ordered to pay a $10 fine.
The students appealed their convictions with famed Baltimore attorneys Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Thurgood Marshall handling their case. The students argued that Maryland’s use of trespassing laws to segregate public accommodations constituted a violation of their 14th Amendment rights. Two years after the arrest, the lower-court decision was upheld by the Maryland Court of Appeals, on which Bell would later serve. In 1964, the case—Robert Mack Bell v. Maryland—went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sent it back to the Maryland appellate court. The convictions were later reversed.
After high school, he enrolled at Morgan. As graduation neared, professors who learned that he was considering law school urged him to consider Harvard. Many of the professors held doctorates from Ivy League schools, Bell said.
“I was always told that was the best law school,” Bell told the Afro.
His Morgan history professor drove him to Massachusetts.
“I can’t describe very well the experience of walking through the Harvard Yard for the first time, the sense of history, the sense of awe of being in this storied place where so many of the greats had gone,” he said.
There was also some “trepidation” about being at Harvard, where fellow Dunbar alum Reginald Lewis was also enrolled.
“Going to a place like that, with that kind of historical underpinning and background, sometimes one starts to think if one should be there,” Bell said.
He joined the organization which would become the Black American Law Students Association. He spent time with other Black students on campus. He worked for the Legal Aid Society in Boston. He wrote for a civil rights publication.
After graduating in 1969, he went to work at Piper and Marbury on labor, real estate and public interest cases. He stayed there until he was appointed to the District Court of Maryland in 1975.
“I never thought about going on the bench,” Bell said. “It was a question of being asked to do it. You must understand where we were. We didn’t have a huge number of African American lawyers, let alone judges…And so there was a perceived need, a feeling that there should be greater representation.”
Bell said the problem was that Baltimore had a paucity of Black lawyers “in the pipeline” to become judges. Some of the younger ones would not have been considered “qualified” by the establishment and most of the ones who were didn’t want to go on the bench, he said.
“I was asked to do it by a couple of the judges,” he said. “And the reason I was asked was because I was at Piper, I had a law degree from Harvard, so they figured I had the quote unquote qualifications.”
It was not a job that Bell planned to make a career, however.
“My intention was to stay for a short time, then…step down,” he said. But opportunities kept presenting themselves.
“I was on the District Court, but [some people] felt there was a need to get more Blacks on the Circuit Court,” he said. “So I applied after some urging from some of my colleagues, some of whom had been on the District Court and moved up.
The next thing was to try to get into the appellate system.”
And so on, until he reached the highest court in the state, where he has held the top spot since 1996.
He feels that it is time to move on.
“I’m in favor of mandatory retirement,” he said, acknowledging, though, that 70 today is much healthier and more vibrant than his parents’ 70.
“Back in 1994, this whole issue came up and was presented to the voters. The effort was made to raise the age to 75, but the voters said, ‘No,’” he said.
Bell said he has no plans. He enjoys a good basketball game—he’s a Morgan and Georgetown fan—and watching television news programs and British comedies. He’s looking forward to doing more of that and spending time with relatives.
And while he’s somewhat nonplussed by all the fuss, he feels grateful that he left enough of a mark that his departure is cause for celebration.
“That’s always a problem for me,” Bell said. “I don’t say that to suggest that I have an undeveloped ego. The only thing, I guess, that I am very much interested in folks understanding is the only thing I’ve tried to do is to do the right thing, basically. When I became chief judge, the right thing seemed to be to give effect to the mandate of the constitutions of the United States and Maryland to provide full and fair access to every person who needs the courts.”
He is leaving an appellate court that has made strides in the accessibility it offers to citizens. To him, that’s the “mark of success.”
His legacy is solid, acquaintances said.
“I believe his legacy as a judge will be his fierce support for the rule of law and for the rights of the less fortunate and disadvantaged,” said Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Marcella A. Holland, a longtime friend. “It can be seen in his dissents on the appellate court and in his handling of trials at the circuit and district court levels. He approached cases always in fairness and a willingness to try to help those who did not understand the law make their concerns known.
“His legacy as chief judge, however, will be a little different. That legacy is his transformation of an average judicial system into a progressive vehicle for access to justice, bringing innovations in alternative dispute resolution, problem solving and legal services. He has guided the judiciary to new heights of efficiency, brought more diversity to the bench and to the administration of the courts, and introduced the courts to new technology.”