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Wright enjoyed having a direct affect on real lives during 37 years on Washington Co. bench

October 11, 2008|By MARLO BARNHART

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- At four different times in his 37-year career as a judge in Washington County, Frederick C. Wright III was wooed to fill a seat on one of the two higher courts in Annapolis.

Four times asked and four times, he turned it down.

Looking back, Wright, now 70 and newly retired, said his decisions to stay had little to do with the money, the travel or even the less-than-stylish robes worn by the judges of Maryland's Court of Special Appeals and Court of Appeals.

"Every time a trial judge makes a decision, he directly impacts a person's life ... also families and victims," Wright said.

At the same time, that trial judge has to make sure there is a perception of fairness in the courtroom, something about which Wright feels passionately.

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Being a trial judge is a different craft from sitting as an appellate judge, Wright said.

"You know the effect of your decision, while with an appellate judge, that contact is removed," he said.

It is that contact and a willingness to listen and explain the law to people that Wright pointed to as his greatest satisfaction.

Wright's last day as a full-time judge was Sept. 3, one day before he turned 70, which is the mandatory retirement age. He will continue to sit until a new judge is appointed.

He then will be designated as a recalled judge. Wright will be available to sit in Fourth Circuit courts through the end of the year, then statewide beginning in 2009 for a finite number of days.

"For me, the judiciary as a career began when I was in the legislature in the late 1960s," Wright said. He was on the house judiciary committee that revamped the state's lower courts and established the District Court in Maryland.

That experience whetted the young attorney's appetite, and in July 1971, Wright was appointed one of 12 administrative judges for the District Court in Maryland.

"It was me and Lou Boublitz in Washington County then," Wright said, referring to late District Judge J. Louis Boublitz.

In 1978, Wright was appointed to replace Irvine Rutledge on the Washington County Circuit Court bench -- a challenge he sought. He won election twice for 15-year terms and has been administrative judge of the Fourth Circuit since 1983.

"Every day, I wanted to come to work, to make those hard decisions in an atmosphere with other people who shared that feeling," Wright said.

As the administrative judge, Wright always was striving to keep the court dockets -- civil, criminal and juvenile -- running smoothly and expeditiously.

"Justice delayed is justice denied," Wright said.

In 1978, there were two circuit court judges -- Wright and John P. Corderman. In the 1980s, Judge Daniel W. Moylan came on board.

"There were 2,800 cases in fiscal year 1978," Wright said. "Now, we have five judges and four times the number of cases."

In fiscal year 2008, the number of cases totaled 10,400. Of those, 6,800 are civil cases, 2,700 are criminal and 900 involve juveniles.

Wright said 80 percent of the civil cases are deemed to be family law, which represents the biggest explosion in cases in recent years. That increase led to the appointment of Dan Dwyer as family law master, who with his staff handles those cases.

For years, family law was relegated to the back burner in Maryland, Wright said. Lawyers were needed in those cases, which meant the courthouse doors virtually were shut for those without attorneys.

In the family law system that Wright helped establish, costs were waived and attorneys weren't required for cases involving family issues such as divorce and child custody.

"It is so rewarding to be a part of that and a motivator for that," Wright said. "There is a team concept here."

When he still was hearing family law cases, Wright said adoptions gave him the most pleasure while custody decisions gave him the most pause.

"I would always schedule adoptions first thing in the morning," he said. "The rest of the day would be downhill."

One specific adoption came to mind -- one that began in Wright's chambers and ended outside on the sidewalk after a bomb threat cleared the building.

"We went across the street ... I took the file with me and we sat on a stoop and signed the papers," Wright said.

Although he never actually had to decide a death penalty case, Wright said he only had been on the bench about a month when just such a case came before him.

One of two defendants in the shooting death of a Garrett County deputy came to Washington County Circuit Court as a death penalty case. However, the man was found guilty of the charge that carried a life sentence and not the death penalty.

Wright also presided over the first round of asbestos cases heard in Washington County. Later, when those cases threatened to overwhelm the county courts, they were consolidated elsewhere in the state.

Wright is married to the former Caroline Routzahn. They have one daughter, Ginny Kay, one son, Frederick "Christian" Wright IV, and five grandchildren.

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