ST. MARY’S COUNTY: Bringing Order to the Court

Bringing Order to the Court

By Kenneth C. Rossignol


(This article was initially published in 2008)

LEONARDTOWN — St. Mary’s Senior Circuit Court Judge Marvin Kaminetz spent a long time serving as the county’s Juvenile Master before being appointed to the bench by then-Governor William Donald Schaefer. It was a dress rehearsal while handling some of the most challenging cases to come to the courts.

Next, he spent the last 15 years since his appointment in 1989 working a heavy caseload, for much of the time, one of only two judges on the circuit court bench.

St. Mary’s Circuit Court Judge John Hanson Briscoe. THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo by Darrin Farrell

Since the retirement of Judge John Hanson Briscoe three years ago, Kaminetz has been serving as the administrative judge in the progressively busier courthouse, which now houses four judges in four courtrooms.

The historic 1901-St. Mary’s County Circuit Courthouse-rear-exposed by the demolition of the old jail. THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo

When Judge Kaminetz first donned his black robe, he presided over cases in what used to be the county commissioner’s conference room on the first floor of the 1910 Circuit Courthouse. That courtroom was later rebuilt into what had been the tax assessor’s office down the hall.

In that courtroom, Judge Kaminetz presided over the trial and sentencing of the infamous creature named John Thanos, who Judge Kaminetz sentenced to die, the first murderer to be executed in 25 years in Maryland.

Thanos dropped his appeals and asked to be executed, a request which was thankfully granted.


Thanos was a cold-blooded killer who was mistakenly released from prison and killed a teenage couple on the Eastern Shore. At his trial, he warned he would do it all over again if he ever had the chance.

When he was executed by lethal injection on May 16, 1994, his last words were recorded as simply: “Adios.”

Thanos is not the only crazy who has come before Judge Kaminetz, and the security of the courthouse was designed with several incidents in mind.

One local nutcase who repeatedly threatened the Judge did so often and convincingly that Kaminetz took pistol target training at a police range and armed himself with a gun he carried at all times, even on the bench.

St.-Marys-Circuit-Court-Judge-Marvin-Kaminetz in his new courtroom in the renovated and expanded circuit courthouse. THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo

Judges must deal with an assortment of criminal and civil cases, many of which are highly charged with emotion. Many deal with people who give little care to controlling themselves and know no bounds on their conduct or behavior, which is part of the reason that they often are on the fast track to an extended stay in jail or the state prison.

The Circuit Courthouse was rebuilt and expanded after a protracted public debate decided by a vote of the St. Mary’s Commissioners in 1995.

A group appointed to determine the space needs of St. Mary’s recommended a $23 million courthouse complex to be built at Leonard Hall Government Center next to the District Court and welfare offices.


Commissioners Larry Jarboe, Chris Brugman, and Frances Eagan voted to completely overhaul the existing 1901 courthouse and add a significant addition to it.

The work of the reconstruction took five years and cost about $12 million, in the process retaining the site of the court’s business in the same place as it had been for 300 years.

This Tuesday, Judge Kaminetz pointed out features of the old building, including an addition, which was added in 1957. What had been the ceremonial courtroom on the second floor of the old courthouse was remodeled, and the entire second floor houses the States Attorney’s Office.

St. Mary’s Commissioner Larry Jarboe campaigned to save the historic courthouse in Leonardtown. THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo

The new addition to the courthouse was built over the rear property where the jail once stood and offered a splendid view over Breton Bay, with that view prominent in the chambers of Judge Kaminetz. The Judge noted that the view dramatically improves in the winter when the leaves are off the trees. Still, no matter the season, St. Mary’s County boasts the only courthouse with any type of water view that links directly to the distant sea.

The view duplicates that of the historic Tudor Hall manor house next door, which once looked out over sailing ships and steamboats coming into Leonardtown Wharf.

As the years passed, barges with oil were the most usual commerce borne to the docks below Judge Kaminetz’s windows.

Now a townhouse project and a waterfront retail complex are in the early stages of construction.

The economic activity associated with the courthouse still brings many visitors to Leonardtown, and the courthouse expansion has spurred a revitalization of the county seat that has been underway for several years.

While the parking around the courthouse appears to be more than ample, the landscape continues to change, especially with the construction of a three-story condo office building across the street and another planned.

The concerns of security that Judges Briscoe and Kaminetz addressed are found throughout the building but are barely noticeable, on the surface to visitors, unless, of course, they ever served on a jury in past years or had occasion to visit the chambers of Judge Joseph A. Mattingly Sr.

When Judy Dyson Bowles was the secretary for Judge Mattingly, about the only obstruction to passage up the front stairs of the courthouse might have been Senator Paul J. Bailey doing pushups for anyone who challenged the 70-year-old to knock off 100 reps.

Sen. Paul J. Bailey at Trent Hall on the Patuxent in 1990. THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo

To go up the rear or public stairs of the courthouse, there was no guard or x-ray machine until about 1990. A special federal grant produced funds for an elevator, which was added onto the rear of the building in the mid-eighties. Now, the new building boasts four public elevators as well as secure ones in the rear.

Other times the challenge to gain access to the Judge’s chambers may have been to get past County Commissioner Dick Arnold regaling a group of lawyers and deputies with a story about the old days in the Seventh District or the infamous Oyster Wars on the Potomac. Clerk of the Court Mary Bell, dressed in a long black robe, would hold wedding ceremonies inside or outside on the front lawn.

Leonardtown-Mayor-J.-Harry-Chip-Norris-III led the battle to keep the Circuit Courthouse and expand it. THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo

About the only way, one could know the Grand Jury was in session was a bailiff standing guard in the hallway.

Today the courthouse is greatly different.

The security for the building is electronic and digital, with sensors, cameras, and radios all employed to allow access for those coming and going into the building.

A complete set of stairs, elevators, and underground parking is provided for the transport of prisoners into the building by jail guards. Interview rooms for use by lawyers with their clients with even the access secure and a window separating the attorney and the prisoner. The interview rooms are secure and connected by a secure passage to four holding cells.

All of the courthouse prisoner areas are accessible for jailers only after securing their weapons in lockboxes. Following this rule makes it unlikely that a prisoner can disarm a guard after disabling them, such as what took place recently in Atlanta, where a prisoner took a deputy’s gun and killed the Judge and three others.

A special security control room enables Security Director Oliver “Skip” Stewart to maintain a vigil over all courthouse security operations.

With key and electronic pass access for all judiciary personnel, the court functions aren’t nearly as colorful or casual as in past years but are a lot safer.

While the three judges, Clarke Raley, Karen Abrams, and Kaminetz, along with Juvenile Master Mike Harris, have indoor parking, visiting Judges are thrown to the luck of the draw with parking spots in the public parking lot.

St. Mary’s County Treasurer Jan Norris.

The County Treasurer was allowed to hang on to offices in what had functioned as the temporary courthouse at Leonard Hall while the old courthouse was rebuilt. But the Register of Wills was somehow destined for the ground floor of the newly expanded courthouse addition.

In order to get there, visitors must take a walk through the main floor of the old courthouse and then walk down a ramp or use an elevator. Many visitors to the Register of Wills are older folks, but they may soon forget the inconvenience if they are inheriting property and money. If they are the benefactors, they are used to being on the giving end, and that little walk won’t hurt them.

St. Marys Clerk of the Circuit Court Evelyn Arnold. THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo

The front of the courthouse on the first floor is divided up for the various functions of the Clerk of the Court, where Clerk Evelyn Arnold presides in the office she has held since the late Mary Bell retired in 1990. Arnold is likely to run again, having won tough races with skill and considerable political prowess she said she learned from her two mentors, her late husband and from Bell.

Judge Kaminetz’s secretary Liz Passarelli is likely to challenge Arnold in the Democratic Primary. At the same time, Sandy Bailey Redden plans to put on another strong race for the GOP like she did in 2002.

Judge Kaminetz is looking forward to retirement and occasionally working in a retired senior status. Even though he could seek reappointment, his retirement will likely result in a new judge being selected by Governor Robert Ehrlich.

The local judicial nominating commission will recommend qualified candidates to Ehrlich with one name virtually guaranteed to not be included being that of States Attorney Richard Fritz. Fritz, however, could do as he did in 2004 and challenge a sitting judge in an election. That effort resulted in a significant embarrassment for Fritz when he lost the election in the Republican primary, coming in third behind two Democrats.

Now political activists in the GOP are looking for a candidate to replace him for States Attorney, as they are worried he will lose the post to the likely Democratic candidate John Mattingly.

The inside line for Ehrlich to pick as Judge is Republican Central Committee Vice-Chairman A. Shane, Mattingly. Mattingly represented the GOP in the race for delegate in 1998 and has been a strong party organizer.

Many large groups and families gather for events at St. Mary’s Landing including this campaign fundraiser for Judge Karen Abrams in 2004. Former Congressman and Sen. Roy Dyson, left, Judge Abrams, former Del. Ernie Bell. THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo

Judge Kaminetz’s service as Juvenile Master followed his years as a partner in the firm of Briscoe, Kenney, and Kaminetz, which was the principal Lexington Park area law firm. All three of the original law partners were appointed to the bench, with Briscoe and Kaminetz serving on the St. Mary’s Circuit Court and Kenney, husband of Judge Karen Abrams, appointed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals by Maryland Governor Parris Glendening.

The local kingmaker, or judgemaker, has been former Sen. J. Frank Raley Jr., college roommates with Gov. Harry Hughes, who secured the judgeship for his political ally Briscoe.

Jack Daugherty, left, and Sen. J. Frank Raley Jr. were both business and political cohorts for decades. THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo

Raley and Briscoe headed up the New Leadership political machine in 1962, with both of them taking a victorious team into domination of local politics, Raley into the State Senate, and Briscoe in the House of Delegates, where he became Speaker and served until 1979. Sen. Raley then is credited with influencing the decision of Governor Schaefer in picking Kaminetz and later convincing Gov. Glendening to select Clark Raley to the Circuit Court.

Judge C. Clarke Raley at the dedication of the St. Mary’s Court House Expansion and Renovation that was fought tooth and nail by Judge John Hanson Briscoe. Given this is St. Mary’s County, after Briscoe caused cost overruns and lengthy delays, the Board of Commissioners renamed the courthouse after Briscoe. Briscoe wanted to abandon the historic courthouse and pushed to build a new $23 million Judicial Palace. The conservative Republicans on the 1994 Board – Larry Jarboe, Chris Brugman and Francy Eagan stood firm on keeping the courthouse in Leonardtown.

Judge Kaminetz brought a young lawyer’s enthusiasm to the business of the courts, with a strong interest in family law, winning him an appointment by Judge Mattingly as the juvenile master. Over the years, the arena of family law has quickly become more contentious, complicated, and explosive.

With a quick wit and a constant eye for justice, the Judge has earned the respect of most folks who have come in contact with him, which is about the chief compliment a jurist could expect to achieve.

Circuit-Courthouse-renovation-and-dedication.- From left, Judges C. Clarke Raley, Karen Abrams, and Marvin Kaminetz. At Podium, St. Mary’s Commissioner President Tommy McKay, at right, Commissioners Kenny Dement, Larry Jarboe, Tom Mattingly, and Dan Raley. THE-CHESAPEAKE-TODAY-photo

The dedication of the renovated and expanded courthouse that the judges didn’t want but was decided by St. Mary’s Commissioner Frances Eagan, Larry Jarboe and Chris Brugman.

St. Mary’s County has experienced a long line of distinguished circuit judges, who used to wield tremendous political power as well as the ability to decide the fortunes of civil litigants and send miscreants off to jail.


Circuit Court Judge Joseph D. Weiner, who is still alive but retired from the practice of law, was defeated for election by Judge Mattingly in 1972, a hotly contested race. After the election, he returned to the private practice of law. After Judge Philip H. Dorsey retired, he mainly practiced politics, playing a significant role in the referendum, defeating the Steuart Oil Company proposal for a refinery at Piney Point.

St. Mary’s Bar Association. Philip Dorsey, lower left, helped pass the repeal of prohibition in the Maryland General Assembly and was later appointed to the Circuit Court where he served until he retired in 1970. Bottom right, next to Judge Dorsey is William O. E. Sterling, who became St. Mary’s first District Court Judge. Photo courtesy of Walter B. Dorsey.

St. Mary’s Bar Association. Philip Dorsey, lower left, helped pass the repeal of prohibition in the Maryland General Assembly and was later appointed to the Circuit Court where he served until he retired in 1970. Bottom right, next to Judge Dorsey is William O. E. Sterling, who became St. Mary’s first District Court Judge. Photo courtesy of Walter B. Dorsey.

Five-term States Attorney Walter B. Dorsey said last week that the legacy of Judge Kaminetz wouldn’t be political.

“He will be recalled as a fair, conscientious, dedicated, and progressive judge free from the shackles of political ties,” said Dorsey. “Who could ask for more?”

St. Mary’s States Attorney and Maryland State Senator Walter B. Dorsey. THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY photo

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