ANNAPOLIS – Judge Robert C. Wilcox retired in 2010, but after two short months of vacationing in Florida, the Maryland jurist traded the beach for the bench.
“I love the law, and I like what I do,” said Wilcox, 70, a resident of Davidsonville in Anne Arundel County, and retired judge of the Maryland District Court in Annapolis where he continues to try cases two days each week. “When you do what you like, it’s not work.”
Wilcox belongs to a group the Maryland court system refers to as retired/recalled judges. Recalled judges work on a part time basis, not to exceed 82 days per year. They are only paid per diem and receive no additional benefits from the state.
According to the Office of Communications and Public Affairs for Maryland Judiciary, approximately 150 retired judges serve throughout the system – a number that fluctuates due to deaths and newly-recalled judges.
“All rise,” the bailiff called out on a recent Wednesday morning. A courtroom of less than 20 people rose as Wilcox took the bench. He granted postponement requests, issued bench warrants for those who failed to appear in court and heard cases involving defendants that were accused of driving under the influence. He appeared calm and attentive as the prosecutor and public defender presented arguments.
There is no such thing as a typical work day, Wilcox said, adding that the amount and length of cases vary.
Wilcox, a New York native, grew up in what he called a “tough neighborhood” in the Bronx. Wilcox said he joined the U.S. Air Force in 1961 and served as a radar operator in Germany, Greece and North Africa during the Vietnam War. While overseas in the military, he took college classes through the University of Maryland.
“I wish that as a judge, I could order military service.” Wilcox said. He credits his military experience for changing his life and building his confidence, which prepared him for his career.
Wilcox left the military in 1964, and moved to Maryland to complete college. He initially wanted to become a geologist, but soon decided that law was the path for him. Wilcox said that his decision to become a lawyer was strictly a financial one.
“My sole purpose was to make money.” Wilcox said. He said that a close childhood friend influenced him to become a lawyer. Wilcox laughed, saying that he was smarter than his friend, so if he could become a lawyer, so could Wilcox.
In his chambers, dressed in a shirt and tie, Wilcox seems relaxed. He is conversational and jovial. The mood is light.
A lengthy morning case involving a child custody dispute caused him to have to work straight through lunch, and after a short recess, court is in session again. The number of people in the courtroom has tripled, and now, Wilcox hears cases involving traffic violations.
He is again clad in his black robe, and his demeanor is now authoritative and reserved as he listens to the testimonies and makes rulings. He makes the occasional joke, but the nature of the cases cause him to be firm. He issued a 60 day jail sentence to a defendant that had multiple citations related to driving without a valid driver’s license. Wilcox empathized with another defendant, on trial for a DUI offense, who acknowledged that he has a drinking problem.
“You can’t do it by yourself,” Wilcox told the defendant, adding that admitting the problem is a big step towards correcting it. He ordered the defendant to get treatment.
Initially in his law career, Wilcox maintained a private practice, but it was his work as a zoning hearing officer from 1986 to 1997 that captivated him. In this position, his duties were comparable to a judge’s duties. He made headlines when he denied the Washington Redskins a relocation of the stadium to Laurel.
Wilcox became an associate judge for the Anne Arundel County District Court in March 1997.
Wilcox, twice widowed, lives with his cat Boomer, short for ‘baby boomer.’ Wilcox also has a land development business where he works part time and he takes summers off from the bench.
Wilcox said that he is “human” and has tough days, but as a general rule he treats others the way he likes to be treated.
“This is an important job that should be taken seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously.” Said Wilcox.
He explained that there are resources in place in the Maryland judicial system that did not exist 25 years ago. “There is a program for almost everything,” Wilcox said. He explained that drug and alcohol treatment, anger management and other programs are available. He said that whenever possible treatment is stressed in lieu of imprisonment. Wilcox said that treatment is a good option, but when it doesn’t work, jail is the alternative.
Wilcox discussed his pet peeves. He is a stickler for appropriate dress, which he said did not have to necessarily mean suits, but no graphic tees with vulgar messages or otherwise unsuitable clothing. Court room decorum and civility were also among the list, that concluded with him emphasizing the importance of honesty. “The truth. The truth. The truth,” Wilcox said, adding the old adage, “The truth shall set you free.”
Lisa Miller, executive aide to the administrative judge, explained the importance of the retired judges coming back. In Maryland, judges are appointed by the governor for 10-year terms, they are required to retire at age 70.
“It’s like a school, the children don’t go away because the teacher is sick. We have to fill the courtroom one way or another.” Miller said of the heavy caseload that persists with the Anne Arundel court being down one judge.
Regarding Wilcox, Miller said that she enjoys working with him and that the sentiment is shared throughout the building.
“He is very even-tempered, even-keeled…congenial and intelligent,” Miller said. “You can tell he enjoys his work.” She said that she has observed him in the courtroom and that, “He is very fair.” She also spoke of his demeanor behind-the-scenes.
“He takes the times to get to know the clerks and bailiffs by name.”
Lee Wheeler, a bailiff, also spoke highly of the judge.
“Judge Wilcox is a fantastic guy. He is one of the best judges here,” said Wheeler, who is a retired Maryland State Trooper of 30 years.
Another morning, Wilcox walked into the busy clerk’s office to a chorus of cheerful hellos, which he returned with equal enthusiasm.
“We love Judge Wilcox,” said Latasha Davis, the criminal traffic supervisor in the clerk’s office. “He makes people feel comfortable.” She said, adding that he uses humor to lighten the mood and that he explains complicated law in simple terms for defendants to understand.
Assistant Public Defender Caroline Spies, said that having retired judges come back to the bench helps manage the case load.
“They are a necessity.” She said.
Spies also said that from a strategic standpoint, attorneys value having judges they are familiar with on the bench, as it helps them decide how to frame their arguments. Because Wilcox regularly hears cases, Spies says she has an idea of his pet peeves.
“Judge Wilcox is one of the frequent judges, so we have an idea of what he is like,” Spies said, “He is very tough on theft, especially employee theft.” Spies said that different judges have their own pet peeves.
Spies said that Judge Wilcox has a great rapport with all of the attorneys and that he is very honest and approachable, which makes new attorneys like herself feel comfortable asking him for constructive feedback based on his experience practicing law.
Wilcox said the most rewarding part of his job is the few times that a reformed past defendant comes back into his courtroom to let him know that they have changed their life, either through a treatment program or time in jail. Wilcox said, “There is no greater feeling.”
“For me, this is retirement,” Wilcox said. “Retirement is in here.” Wilcox said, pointing to his head. He added that he will continue to take cases as long as his health allows. He smiled, “I’ll never retire.”