Howard Gary Bass, Baltimore District judge

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Howard Gary Bass, whose career as a Baltimore District Court judge spanned nearly three decades and who was known as something of a judicial free spirit for his application of humor to the law, died Tuesday afternoon at Good Samaritan Hospital after being stricken with a heart attack at his Homeland residence. Judge Bass was 70.

On the day of his death, lawyers, judges and colleagues from across the state were preparing to honor him at a retirement dinner that evening at Sammy's Trattoria in downtown Baltimore.

"He called that morning and said he was coming down with the flu, and I said we would call it off and do it at a later time. We had more than 70 people coming," said District Judge Kathleen M. Sweeney, a close friend. "And then the call came from his wife's caregiver that she had tried to wake him from a nap and he was gone."

District Judge Barbara Baer Waxman is another close friend and colleague.

"He was forced to retire at 70 and worked till the last day," said Judge Waxman. "He loved working. He loved the District Court and he was heartbroken when he had to retire."

Howard Gary Bass — he never used his first name — was born and raised in Baltimore. His parents owned the popular Radio Center record shop in Waverly.

After graduating from City College in 1960, he earned a bachelor's degree in 1964 from what is now Loyola University Maryland.

Judge Bass was a 1967 graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law and was admitted to the bar that year.

He practiced privately briefly before joining the Baltimore City state's attorney's office in 1970 as an assistant state's attorney; he later was in charge of the office's Criminal Investigation Division.

Judge Bass was promoted to deputy state's attorney by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in 1983.

"It's nice to have someone around you who does know the subtleties," Mr. Schmoke told The Baltimore Sun at the time.

Seven months later, Gov. Harry R. Hughes appointed him to Baltimore District Court.

"Gary was sort of a free spirit who had a very, very keen sense of humor and was never reticent about cracking a joke," said Elliot L. Lewis, who worked with Judge Bass in the state's attorney's office and is now a partner in Goodman Meagher & Enoch LLP.

"He always said, 'I'm just cutting the tension,' and would always include a quip in his rulings and decisions."

In his chambers, Judge Bass framed remarks he made in a Baltimore Magazine profile when named the "Best Judge in the City."

"People come to court terrified. They've rehearsed the story in their minds so much that they're fearful," he said. "They've convinced themselves — even if they knew they were wrong — that they're right."

He was also known for his mischievous behavior from the bench.

Judge Waxman said that in the back of a court folder is certain information about defendants that "they wouldn't know that we knew. It's minor stuff like where the person works."

Judge Bass would tell them that he was going to ask them certain questions, and if they lied, he flicked the courtroom lights on and off.

"He was able to control the lights from where he sat," said Judge Waxman. "He liked to have fun."

"He used to say, 'We're all products of our background. I'm not a psychiatrist, but I love playing one,'" said Judge Sweeney. "He could look at a person and read people, which is a great gift for a judge."

"Judge Bass was a character," said Sharon L. Cole, supervising attorney in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.

"When something bizarre would happen in District Court, he would say, 'Did Judge [Chief Justice William H.] Rehnquist start out this way?' He ran a relaxed courtroom," said Ms. Cole. "Court personnel was his family. He loved every moment on the bench. It was his life."

In one of his cases, an elderly woman was stopped at Northern Parkway by a police officer after she drove in reverse from her Padonia Road home, down Interstate 83, onto the Beltway and then down the Jones Falls Expressway.

Quizzed on this way of driving, she patiently explained to Judge Bass that she wanted to sell her car and driving backward made the odometer roll backward, increasing the chance of a sale.

"Bass gave her probation before judgment, imposed a small fine and said, essentially, lady don't do that again," reported The Evening Sun in 1984.

During the reconstruction of the Jones Falls Expressway in 1988, his courtroom was filled with motorists who had been ticketed for speeding in the construction zone.

This time, Judge Bass earned the ire of city police when he admitted in open court "having driven faster than the posted limit on the roadway," reported The Sun.

"He fined 80 people but gave them probation before judgment, meaning they didn't get any points added to their driving records," reported the newspaper.

"Let's be honest," Judge Bass said to a driver caught speeding near Orleans Street. "I travel the JFX. I do 54. Just tell me the truth."

The police department told the newspaper the judge's comments sounded like an "endorsement to break the law."

When Judge Bass turned 70 last November, he faced mandatory retirement.

"The worst day of Gary's life was Nov. 7. He didn't want to retire, he loved the job so much," said Mr. Lewis. "He looked forward to coming back and pinch-hit for judges who were sick or on vacation."

Judge Bass was a member of Beth Tifloh Congregation.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday at Sol Levinson & Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road.

Surviving are his wife of 30 years, the former Sarah Sokolsky; and his stepfather, Harry Brotman of Pikesville.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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