By: Chief Judge John P. Morrissey, District Court of Maryland and Lauren Kitzmiller.

Many changes have been made during my first eighteen months as the Chief Judge of the District Court of Maryland. For example, we have added a brand new program to provide all indigent defendants with representation at initial appearances before Commissioners. We have also converted the judiciary from paper filing to an electronic filing and case management system and moved the location of the district court headquarters.

All of these endeavors have been challenging, but something special came when packing up the old office and moving next door. In the accumulation of folders, documents, and other miscellaneous office supplies, I found two ordinary file folders hidden amongst the many records accumulated by the district court over the years. These files, however, were anything but ordinary. What I found was not only history of the district court, but also history of its first Chief Judge – the man who sat in my position, over forty years ago. Looking through these folders that contained speeches, convocations, and publications, I not only received first-person insight to the beginnings of a new court, but of the man behind it all – the Honorable Robert F. Sweeney.

Although the 45th anniversary of the district court may not be the most notable milestone, I want to take the time to pay tribute to the man who helped shape the “People’s Court.” Judge “Bob” Sweeney was born in Baltimore on September 17, 1926, and was the middle child of seven siblings in a large Irish-Catholic family. He attended both Loyola High School and Loyola College and eventually received his degree from the University of Baltimore School of Law. In 1959, he was appointed to a Magistrate’s seat on the Baltimore Housing Court. Two years later, he went to work at the Attorney General’s Office.

Chief Judge Robert Murphy of the Court of Appeals of Maryland, Maryland’s Supreme Court, was a childhood friend of Judge Sweeney and had kept in touch throughout the years. When Judge Murphy recruited Judge Sweeney to take on the position of Chief Judge of the district court in 1971, Judge Sweeney was not easily persuaded. The legislature had just passed an amendment to create the district court and gave the judiciary just sixty days.While Judge Sweeney was concerned about the limited time in which to develop and implement a statewide court system, he was motivated to action by the widely known corruption and disorganization in the former Trial Magistrate Courts, People’s Court, and Commissioners system. In the determined and understated fashion that was characteristic of his judicial career, Judge Sweeney turned down a lifetime appointment to the Federal Court to serve as the Chief Judge of a court not yet created.

In 1971, Maryland was one of the first states in the nation to abolish all of its part-time, non-lawyer courts. Thirteen years later, it remained one of only ten states that had developed a statewide system comparable to that of the district court. Judge Sweeney took on the monumental task of starting an entire court system from scratch without any playbook or guide. In sixty days, he needed to find and furnish space to open a courthouse in every county in the State, including Baltimore City. With the short deadline looming, these courthouses initially were located in gas stations, storage areas that typically held voting machines, basements of county buildings, and firehouses. In his old file folders, I found speeches he had given only three months after the court opened. Judge Sweeney acknowledged the dire conditions of some of the courthouses, calling them “unsuitable and shameful,” yet he proclaimed that the district court was already successful “because we have improved the quality of justice by, on the whole, improving the quality of those dispensing justice.”

Download Chief Judge  John P. Morrissey and  Lauren Kitzmiller’s Full article here.

Image taken from the Maryland State Art Collection.

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