Bell, Robert Mack 1943–
Robert Mack Bell 1943–
Robert Mack Bell is the first African American to head Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. Bell also is one of Maryland’s most experienced judges. At the age of 31, he was the youngest judge in the state. He has served for several years as a sitting judge on the seven-member Court of Appeals.
Conservatives considered Bell a liberal and a leading dissenter in decisions ratifying the death penalty. When Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening appointed Bell as a judge in 1996, political controversy ensued. While Bell’s appointment to the post pleased Maryland’s African American constituency, conservatives voiced their displeasure with his judicial decisions. Since becoming a member of the court in 1991, Bell had consistently voted to reverse death sentences. “In death penalty and criminal procedure cases…he [Bell] comes down in favor of applying a rule in the defendant’s favor, though not advocating any wholesale…change in the law,” Edward A. Tomlinson, a professor at the University of Maryland, commented to Abramowitz and Torry of The Washington Post. University of Maryland law professor William L. Reynolds, described in the Post as a longtime court observer, remarked that, “Bellwrites excellent opinions…thoughtful, extremely well researched and non-ideological….Bell does not have an ax to grind.”One conservative argued that Bell was too permissive. “He has the reputation of being a bleeding heart liberal,” former gubernatorial hopeful Ellen Sauerbrey, a Republican, stated in the The Sun. “Judge Bell is frequently the lone dissenter who votes to return violent criminals to their communi-ties.”
Bell strongly disagreed with the claims of conservatives that he was a “bleeding heart liberal.” “I do dissent in death penalty cases,” he stated in an interview with CBB. “The reason for it is because I believe you ought to cross the t’s and dot the i’s in cases where the punishment is so final. I try to call them the way I see them, based upon the record that’s before me. I’m not a judicial activist as the word liberal tends to suggest.”He also defended his serious, strict approach to sentencing in death penalty cases. Bell also remarked to CBB that sending someone to jail should not be easy and that each defendant should be given the benefit of the doubt.
During the mid-1970s, Bell was appointed to the District Court of Maryland in Baltimore by then governor Marvin Mandel. Before this appointment, he worked from 1969 to
Born Robert Mack Beit July 6, 1943, In Rocky Mount, NC; raised in Baltimore, MD; son of Thomas (a laborer) and Rosa Lee (a house cleaner) Bell.Education: Morgan State College, AB, 1966; Harvard University Law School, JD, 1969.
Career: Associate, Piper & Marbury, 1969–74; judge, Maryland District Court District One, Baltimore City, 1975–80; associate judge, Baltimore City Circuit Court, Eighth Judicial Circuit, 1980–84; judge, Court of Special Appeals, Sixth Appellate Circuit in Annapolis, MD, 1984–91; associate judge, Maryland Court of Appeals, Baltimore, 1991–96, chief judge, 1996—.
Awards: Distinguished Performance and Accomplishment Award Morgan Alumni, 1975; Distinctive Achievement Award Phi Alpha Theta, 1976; Community Service Award Hiram Grand Lodge AF and AM, 1976.
Member: Maryland State Bar Association, 1987—; Sentencing Guidelines Board; Judictal Compensation Committee, 1993—; board of directors, The African American Community Foundation, 1994—; University of Maryland Law School Board of Visitors, 1994—; board of trustees, Chesapeake Center for Youth Development, Inc, 1994—.
Addresses: Office—634 Courthouse East, 111 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202.
1974 as an associate at the corporate law firm of Piper & Marbury. From 1980 to 1984, he servedas an associate judge on the Baltimore City Circuit Court. In 1984, Bell was named as a judge on the Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis and remained there until 1991. In 1988, he actively supported the practice of having circuit judges run for re-election, contending that elections would ensure that minorities and women were represented on state benches. Throughout his career, Bell has served as a mentor to young African American lawyers.
During his inaugural address to Maryland’s judiciary in 1997, Bell called for the creation of six new judgeships and legislative consent for $9, 000 in pay raises for judges. By 1999, 15 new judgeships had been created and $11,000 allocated for judicial pay raises. Bell also pledged to restore people’s confidence in the judicial system. “My intention and vision is for the Maryland judiciary to increase its focus on public outreach, to inform the public better as to how best they can negotiate what is to some a mysterious and sometimes tricky path to justice,” he asserted in The Sun. “Through both written and electronic judiciary outreach programs, we intend to make our courts, and especially their procedures, more understandable and user-friendly.”
Bell was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on July 6, 1943. His father, Thomas, a laborer, and his mother, Rosa Lee Bell, a house cleaner, separated when Bell was very young. His mother raised all three of her sons as a single parent. “I don’t remember ever having lived with him,” Bell said of his father to CBB. Bell grew up in a tough, impoverished African American neighborhood in eastBaltimore. “I fought a good bit when I was growing up, going to and from school,” he commented to CBB. “And of course I was stopped by the police from time to time. My mother was concerned that I got in at a decent hour and didn’t run in the streets too much.”During his elementary school years, Bell read Perry Mason detective and mystery stories and began to think about becoming a lawyer.
At the age of 16, Bell found himself on the wrong side of the law. While he was president of the student body at Dunbar, a then-segregated high school, Bell helped orchestrate a sit-in at Hooper’s cafeteria, which also was segregated. He and the other demonstrators were arrested and eventually convicted of trespassing. The group appealed the conviction and brought their case before the Court of Appeals, where it was refused legal recognition. Aided by lawyer Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel of the NAACP, the group took its case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case was again rejected. In 1963, following the passage of anti-segregation laws by Maryland’s general assembly, the Court of Appeals considered the case again and overturned the convictions.
Bell’s experience with the court system had inspired him to pursue a legal career and follow in the footsteps of his hero, Thurgood Marshall. While majoring in history at Morgan State College, Bellsat on the disciplinary committee. He also became chief justice of his dormitory court. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1966, Bell was accepted into Harvard University Law School. He enjoyed his classes at Harvard, especially a criminal law course taught by appellate lawyer, Alan Dershowitz. Bell graduated from Harvard University Law School in 1969.
When Bell was appointed to Maryland’s District Court in the mid-1970s, many of his decisions were controversial. In 1975, he infuriated politicians and city police officers by dismissing several prostitution cases because of inadequate evidence. The following year, his decision to release a man from custody due to lack of evidence backfired when the man killed his wife. In 1980, Bell was nominated for the Supreme Bench (now the Circuit Court) and was elected from a field of ten candidates.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Bell climbed the judicial ladder. After Governor Glendening appointed Bell as chief judge of the Court of Appeals in 1996, he presided over a court that handled nearly 200 cases per year. In addition to his customary tasks on the bench, he has managed more than 3,000 employees and controlled a yearly budget of over $2 million. In 1999, he gave the commencement address at Baltimore University’s law school. He commented to CBB that he told the school’s graduates, “One ought tostand up for one’s principles. Don’t run away from a sensitive issue because you think it’s going to affect your career. It may very well affect your career but it need not be a negative affect.”
The American Bench, 1997–98, p. 1162.
Leadership Directories, the Leadership Library, http://1di.bvdep.com/1diintra.dll?
Who’s Who Among African Americans, Gale, 1996–97, p. 100.
Who’s Who in American Law, Marquis Who’s Who, 1998–99, p. 48.
Who’s Who in theEast, Marquis Who’s Who, 1999–00, p. 63.
Baltimore, March 1997, pp. 47–49; pp. 100–101.
Baltimore Sun, January 30, 1997, p. B.
Capital, February 15, 1999, p. A6.
Ebony, October 1997, p. 122+.
National Law Journal, November 4, 1996, pp. A1, A.5.
Washington Post, October 23, 1996, Sec. B, pp. 1, 5; October 24, 1996, Sec. B, pp. 1, 7; April 3, 1997, Sec. D, p. 5; October 23, 1998, Sec. C, p. 6.
Additional material for this profile was obtained through an interview with Robert Mack Bell, and through his resume on the internet at http://www.mdarchives.state.md.us/msa/mdmanual/29ap/html/msall654.html
—Alison Carb Sussman
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