Judge Bell

Robert M. Bell, Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, in his courtroom, where he and the other judges heard a case before their court. He will be retiring in July. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / April 8, 2013)

Maryland's highest-ranking judge, Robert M. Bell, likes that his courthouse is dedicated to his predecessor, pointing out that the letters etching Robert C. Murphy's name on the building's exterior are filled in gold paint to make sure even nighttime drivers can see it.

As Bell approaches retirement, mandatory when he turns 70 in July, he scoffs at the notion that his name might someday grace a building as well.

But then, his name is forever etched in legal history by virtue of the Supreme Court case Bell v. Maryland.

As a 16-year-old, Bell was arrested at a 1960 sit-in at a Baltimore restaurant that served whites only, becoming the lead plaintiff in a case that ultimately helped push the country toward desegregation.

The case has been something of a talisman in his life, re-emerging on occasion even after it was settled. As a law student at Harvard University, Bell was taught his own case in a seminar. And later, as he rose through Maryland's judiciary, he would be seated on the same benches as lawyers who had argued for the state and against him — including a one-time deputy attorney general named Robert C. Murphy.

That the former plaintiff would replace a former adversary as chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals is one of the more remarkable arcs in the state's legal history.

"It's really a tableau; it really encapsulates what happened in America in the last 40 years," said William L. Reynolds, a University of Maryland law professor who has written a legal history of the case.

Reynolds will be among the speakers this week at a symposium devoted to Bell's career, following a gala dinner hosted by the Maryland State Bar Association. It is an opportunity for colleagues and admirers to celebrate what Bell calls his "ordinary life" — an opinion from which some would, respectfully, dissent.

Bell, who once opposed an effort to extend the mandatory retirement ages for judges, says he's ready to hand off the gavel.

"As time passes, you need the infusion of new energy and new visions and new ideas," said Bell, the first African-American to lead the Court of Appeals. "You're more likely to get that with new blood."

In his office on the top floor of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse downtown, Bell is surrounded by his own history. Mitchell helped lead the fight for landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which rendered moot the issues raised in Bell v. Maryland, by, among other things, banning segregation in public places. And Mitchell was married to Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the first black woman to practice law in Maryland and part of the young Bell's defense team.

Bell's office features several portraits of another lawyer who worked on the case: Baltimore native and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Bell himself presents something of a study in contrasts. He is a ubiquitous public speaker, yet personally rather shy — "an extroverted introvert," as one friend puts it. The first impression many get of him, his sunny, approachable affability, remains even in the face of some fierce battles over the years against other state officials.

And then, inescapably, there is his flair for fashion, hidden beneath his courtroom robes: the little zodiac medallion and skinny suits he wore in the 1970s and '80s, the bow ties, pocket squares, berets and man purses that he has lately favored.

"The only thing I cannot subscribe to follow him in is clothes," jokes fellow Appeals Court Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr., "from his socks that are every color of the rainbow and his bow ties, and the — I'm not sure what they are called — the kerchiefs in the jacket pocket."

Bell tends to wear the eternally bemused expression of someone who has seen it all while serving on each of the four state courts — district, circuit, special appeals and appeals — and simply living his life.

He is the son of a sharecropper who moved her family to Baltimore when Bell was a toddler. His voice softens in recalling a childhood in East Baltimore and an education at Dunbar High School, where he was student body president — running on a ticket with his buddy and vice president, the late Reginald F. Lewis, who became one of the richest Americans as CEO of the Beatrice food conglomerate.

"He was an entrepreneur even then," Bell said, remembering how Lewis would get them jobs pulling floats in the city's Thanksgiving Day parades and hawking sodas at Memorial Stadium.

Bell tends to steer conversations away from himself, even attributing his own rise through Maryland's judicial ranks to others. Indeed, he appears to have been groomed by those who in the 1970s were eager to open up Maryland's judgeships beyond white male applicants.

"Things always happen not so much because of what I do but because of what others do," Bell said. "There was ... a perceived need for diversification on the bench. There was this perception that you don't have anyone on the scene who would pass muster and who would be deemed qualified.