Judge Bell, a Witness to History
Recently, on April 9, Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, was the featured speaker at the Carroll County National Association for The Advancement of Colored People Branch 7014 Freedom Fund Banquet.
Known as one of the busiest judges in Maryland, Judge Bell nevertheless has a reputation for wanting to get out in the community as much as possible.
Jean Lewis, the president of the local branch of the NAACP, commented that she has tried for several years to find a time in Judge Bell’s hectic schedule for him to come to Carroll County. All of us in attendance that evening benefited from her perseverance.
As an aside, I must say that I am a life member of the NAACP, and a member of the Carroll County branch. Take from that what you wish; however, I have worked with the local chapter for quite a number of years in various capacities. This does not preclude me from criticizing the national NAACP.
Over the years, the local branch and its leadership have gained a wonderful reputation. Take all your predispositions about the race identity, entitlement class warfare and politically partisan policies and initiatives of the national NAACP and just throw them out the window when you analyze the local branch.
It is well grounded in promoting the values of education, personal responsibility, and ensuring that everyone in the community has access to the American dream of working hard for economic opportunities. It is not by accident that the leadership of the Carroll County Republican Party may be found at most of the local branch’s functions and vice-versa.
In the social hour at the NAACP event, before the evening’s scheduled activities began, Judge Bell mingled with the crowd and demonstrated why he is so well liked.
Come to find out he has a passion for photography – and fountain pens. He has a great sense of humor and it only takes a couple of minutes of talking with him to realize that he is quite a people person and has a brilliantly sharp intellect and wit.
Anyone who is aware of his background knows that he has arrived at the top of his game the old-fashioned way. He worked hard and he earned it. In 1996, Judge Bell became the only active judge in the state to have served at least four years on all four levels of Maryland’s judiciary, and the first African-American to be named the state’s chief jurist.
He was born in Rocky Mount, NC, July 6, 1943; but grew-up in Baltimore where he attended Dunbar High School. He received his A.B. degree at Morgan State College in 1966. He went on to Harvard Law where he received his Juris Doctorate in 1969.
Judge Bell began his long career as an attorney with the law firm Piper and Marbury. He was first appointed to the bench in 1975 as a judge of the District Court of Maryland for Baltimore City.
He next served as a judge for the Circuit Court for Baltimore City from 1980 until 1984. In the latter year, he was appointed judge to the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, and, in 1991, Judge Bell was appointed to the Court of Appeals of Maryland.
On October 23, 1996, then-Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening appointed him to be the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals.
For those who are not familiar with the history and tradition of Maryland’s highest court, it is one of the country's oldest judicial bodies. It was established in 1776.
If it helps to better understand the organization of the Maryland judiciary, the Court of Appeals is the state’s “supreme court.” In Maryland, the court consists of seven judges who are chosen by the governor of Maryland and approved by the state Senate, including a chief judge designated by the governor.
Attorney and former Republican State Del. Joe Getty also attended the NAACP banquet. He provided additional insight into the Maryland Court of Appeals.
“As an attorney, I have had the opportunity on two occasions to argue cases before Maryland’s highest appellate court,” said Mr. Getty. “A Maryland Court of Appeals hearing is a formal proceeding steeped in tradition. It is impressive, intense and austere – but also nerve-wracking for any attorney.
“The Maryland Court of Appeals is the only appellate court in the United States in which the judges wear traditional scarlet-colored robes that hearken back to colonial England and the post-Revolutionary War period in Maryland judicial history…”
Many are not aware of the profound impact Judge Bell made on Maryland history a half-a-century ago when he personally participated in helping bring about an end to de facto racial segregation in Maryland.
On June 17, 1960, 12 Dunbar High School students entered a downtown Baltimore restaurant, were refused service, and subsequently arrested.
One of those students was a young Robert Bell. He and the other students were convicted in the Circuit Court of Baltimore City of criminal trespassing and fined $10.
The case was appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals, which upheld the decision of the circuit court. The students' representation included Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Thurgood Marshall – who was later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mr. Bell subsequently led an appeal of the verdict in a landmark civil rights case, Bell v. Maryland, which was eventually argued before the United States Supreme Court – which vacated the decision and remanded the case back to the Maryland court.
All of which made the evening this year that much more poignant. For it was on April 9, 1965, that Mr. Bell's conviction was reversed – and all of the students were cleared of all charges – by the very same Maryland Court of Appeals, of which Judge Bell now serves as chief judge.
Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at email@example.com.