ANNAPOLIS – Judge Robert M. Bell, who has served on each level of the state courts during a judicial career that spans nearly 20 years, was appointed chief judge of Maryland’s highest court Wednesday, becoming the first African American to hold that post.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening made the long-awaited announcement in a Statehouse conference room packed with reporters, lawmakers, jurists, one former governor and well wishers.
“I dared to dream I could make a difference,” Bell told the gathering, adding that he never thought he might end up as a chief judge.
Glendening and others praised Bell as the best man for the job.
“This is Maryland’s judicial team of the future,” Glendening said of Bell and two other judges whom he elevated.
Judge Alan M. Wilner will serve on the Court of Appeals and Joseph F. Murphy Jr. will serve as Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, filling the vacancy left by Wilner’s promotion.
Bell, who has been serving as a member of the Maryland Court of Appeals since 1991, was appointed to replace retiring Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, an institution in the Maryland court system for almost a quarter century.
The retiring chief judge called Bell “one gem of a judge” and a natural leader who will “demonstrate his great worth to our society” in his new position.
The governor “strengthened the judicial system” with, among other things, diversity, Robert Murphy said.
Bell, appointed to the Court of Appeals by former Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 1991, said he does not know whether he will make changes in his new role. But he did say he wants the court of the future to be “robust with enthusiasm and equipped to face all challenges.”
Bell said the appointment means a lot to him.
“It validates the notion that hard work and perseverance will be rewarded,” he said.
Bell sat on the state’s Court of Special Appeals from 1984 to 1991, the Baltimore City Circuit Court from 1980 to 1984, and the District Court of Maryland from 1975 to 1980. He is a graduate of what was then Morgan State College and Harvard Law School.
Former Maryland Governor Harry Hughes, acknowledging the importance of the appointments, said “there is nothing more important that a governor does” because his choices leave a lasting legacy.
As chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, Bell heads the entire state judiciary and has influence with the Legislature on judicial matters.
The Senate still must confirm Bell’s appointment. But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, said that body was “excited and delighted” with Glendening’s choice.
Miller said the governor had made the three best appointments possible, but did not say whether the Senate would confirm them all.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, said Bell has been his mentor for a long time, adding that some of the first cases he argued as a lawyer were before Bell.
Cummings stressed that the appointment was not racially motivated.
“It’s not because you’re black,” he said to Bell. Then he turned to the audience. It’s because he is “one of the greatest jurists” he told them.
Glendening took offense at reporters’ suggestions that the appointment may have been politically and racially motivated. He said the choices were not about politics but about picking the best people for the job. Joseph Murphy, the new chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals, said he was “looking forward” to working with Bell, but did not think his own new position “will be a terribly big change.” -30-