Black History Spotlight
Both quintessential jurist and civil rights icon, the first African American judge designated as Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals is the Honorable Robert M. Bell. Judge Bell began his legal career in private practice as an attorney at the law firm of Piper & Marbury. His time with the firm would be limited, within five years he was appointed to the bench.
With acumen and humanity, Judge Bell served at every state court level: the District Court of Maryland for Baltimore City, 1976-1980, Circuit Court for Baltimore City, 1980-1984, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, 1984-1991, and the Court of Appeals, 1991 to 2013. Judge Bell is also renowned for his elegant bow ties, startling wit, and roaring laugh.
Judge Bell’s profound impact on the judicial system and civil rights reform began in his youth. As a sixteen-year-old, he became the lead plaintiff in a case that would move the U.S. toward desegregation. While a student attending Dunbar High School in Baltimore, Robert Bell along with eleven other students were arrested while peacefully protesting against segregation via a sit-in at a local restaurant. They were convicted in the Criminal Court of Baltimore for criminal trespassing and fined $10. On appeal to the Court of Appeals, the students were represented by Maryland attorneys Tucker Deering, lead attorney, and Robert B. Watts (later, one of Maryland’s most respected judges) and, among others, Thurgood Marshall and Juanita Jackson Mitchell. They asserted that the enforcement of the State’s criminal law to segregate public accommodations violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Unsuccessful at the Court of Appeals, the U. S. Supreme Court accepted the case for review. Here, he was represented by the legal team of Constance Baker Motley and Jack Greenberg. The Supreme Court vacated the lower court decision and remanded because, in the interim, Maryland and Baltimore City passed public accommodations laws. See Bell v. Maryland, 378 U.S. 226 (1964). And the Maryland Court of Appeals indeed ultimately reversed the conviction, clearing the students of all charges.
Judge Bell graduated from Morgan State College, now University, in Baltimore, MD in 1966 and from Harvard Law School in Cambridge, MA in 1969. He received his license to practice law that same year, continuing his storied career. Judge Bell is associated with a plethora of State and national committees dedicated to the improvement of law. To name a few: Chair, Maryland Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission (1998-2001), Chair, Public Trust and Confidence Implementation Committee (2000-2013), named Chair of the National Center for State Courts’ Board of Directors and president of the Conference of Chief Justices (2006) and Member, COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force (2020-2021). Judge Bell is also the recipient of a multitude of honors and awards for his lifetime of achievement in promoting the improvement of law and fostering civil rights.
Judge Bell’s sterling character shines in his judicial temperament. For example, one morning in the Court of Special Appeals, Judge Bell was on the three-judge panel where several other attorneys and I were scheduled to argue. An older white male attorney, who seemed to be no seasoned appellate advocate, began his argument. As if to stress his point, the lawyer announced vehemently that he “liked to call a spade a spade.” The courtroom was suddenly silent. Until Judge Bell roared with sustained laughter that echoed and cascaded throughout the courtroom, breaking the tension, and restoring the courtroom to its customary calm. With one disarming gesture Judge Bell defused a disturbing situation. Without words, Judge Bell exemplified civility.
By Stephanie Lane-Weber, Esq.
Past President Md Chapter FBA