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District judge is retiring

November 30, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

Just before the afternoon court docket began on a recent Friday, District Judge R. Noel Spence walked into an empty Courtroom No. 2 - his courtroom - and pointed to a handmade placard sitting on the bench, just out of view from anyone else who may sit in his court.

It reads, "I wish I hadn't said that!"

Spence said his granddaughter gave it to him years back, but he keeps it as a daily reminder "to try not to put your foot in your mouth too much. ...

"People upset me, people that know better," Spence said.

Spence, who inside a courtroom can be fiery and compassionate inside of a few minutes, is retiring at the end of the year, marking his 10th year as a district judge. The move also caps a 45-year legal career, most of which was spent in Washington County.

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Spence was reappointed to a new term in October, but Maryland judicial rules require judges to retire at age 70. The governor will appoint a new judge after an application period.

Spence spent a few minutes with a reporter recently discussing his career path and observations from inside the courtroom, saying it was his successful battle against alcoholism that brought him to this point.

"Any one of those people that appear in front of me as a victim or a defendant could be me, except for the hand of my maker," he said.

But not having had a drink since Jan. 8, 1984, he said his career path has taken a much brighter turn.

Spence, a 1952 Hagerstown High School alumnus, graduated from the University of Maryland Law School in 1958. Spence worked in private legal practice, then did a brief stint in the FBI until a friend convinced him to join his Washington County legal practice.

In the 1960s, Spence spent four years in the Maryland House of Delegates, and next worked as a magistrate judge in the system that preceded the District Court system, which was instituted in 1971.

In July 1984, Spence was appointed as a part-time assistant state's attorney under State's Attorney M. Kenneth Long Jr.

Long promoted Spence to a full-time assistant in 1986, and then his deputy in 1988. Five years later, both applied for a space that had opened in the District Court, but Spence was chosen over his boss, and was seated Oct. 1, 1993. The two remain friends.

"I've known Judge Spence for a long time. I know he loves his job and I know he'll be sorry to leave the bench and we'll miss him," Long said.

Most criminal cases are handled at the District Court level in Maryland, as well as most traffic citations, domestic violence petitions and small-claims civil actions. Hundreds of such cases pass through the Washington County District Court each week before the two full-time judges assigned there.

Since his appointment to the bench, Spence said he has seen good things and bad things, but while the court system can do some things to change society, broader government must step up as well.

"We deal with a whole bunch of people," Spence said. Some people are disadvantaged "but are just marvelous." Others "are well off financially but are just totally rotten to the core. ... So we try to treat 'em all fairly."

He said, "I like to let people know that I know they're being dishonest - and I get it all the time," but also, "so much of what we do is alcohol- and drug-related."

Under the current system, if an addict violates probation from a previous charge, "then my alternative is to send them to jail."

Spence said he thought more treatment programs for addicts would curb the repeat offenses that clog criminal court dockets, instead of the court options currently available.

After he retires Dec. 31, Spence said he hopes to spend some time in the courthouse on an on-call basis. But he says he'll also spend more time doing housework with his wife of 21 years, Vicky Spence, at their Clear Spring home.

Vicky Spence, 56, said she admires her husband on and off the bench.

"What a better way to go out, as a judge," she said. "He's got a dry sense of humor. ... I'm sure if you've seen him in the courtroom, you've seen it."

"I'm sure there's people that don't like him," Vicky Spence said. "But I think they respect him."

Staff Writer Laura Ernde contributed to this story.

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