County’s Senior Judge Nears End Of Long Court Run

SNOW HILL – Approaching
the mandatory retirement age of 70 at the end of this month, senior Worcester
County Circuit Court Judge Theodore Eschenberg is preparing for the next chapter
in his fascinating life, although he doesn’t seem altogether thrilled about it.

Eschenberg has served
nearly the last three decades on the Worcester County Circuit Court bench
including the last 18 as the county’s administrative judge and the Chief Judge
of the state’s 1st Judicial Circuit, which includes the four lower
counties on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. On his watch, Worcester has grown
significantly and with it has the county’s criminal and civil case docket
exponentially.

During his tenure, Worcester
County’s Circuit Court has gone from one courtroom and from a single judge, a
couple of secretaries and a couple of bailiffs to three full-time judges, two
new courtrooms and a staff of nearly 30. Over the last 28-plus years,
Eschenberg has presided over some of the most high profile cases in the county
in addition to shepherding Worcester’s court system into the 21st
Century.

Entering mandatory
retirement, he is now ready to rediscover some hobbies and passions from which
he has drifted away over the years, but he leaves the bench reluctantly.

Eschenberg took time this week to sit down with The Dispatch and reflect on the last 28-plus years. The following

are some excerpts from that conversation:

Q. Worcester County certainly has changed over the
many years you’ve been on the bench. How have things changed the most in terms
of the types of crimes or the volume of crime?

A. Well, it’s not only
crime, it’s been both criminal and civil. I don’t know that the types have
changed that much because I don’t think they really have. The volume most
certainly has. When I first came over to Circuit Court from District Court in
1983, I started in District Court in 1981 and was there 18 months when a
vacancy occurred here.

When I came over, we had
one jury courtroom. We had a very small, for lack of a better term, courtroom
that is downstairs in the room now being used by the orphan’s court and by the
master on occasion. It had no jury room and it was not a jury courtroom. You
could only hear non-jury cases there, so we met with the County Commissioners,
Judge [Dale] Cathell and I, Judge Cathell was the administrative judge then,
and told them we need an additional jury courtroom. Eighteen months later, we
were occupying it. That’s where Judge Groton is now.

Another huge change has
been the creation of the family law division, which assists the family court.
When we started off, originally, the only employees the court had were a couple
of bailiffs, a couple of secretaries and a couple of court reporters and that
was it. We now have over 20 counting the family court division. Let’s see, we
have 27 including the judges.

So the court has grown,
and the caseload has grown tremendously since I came over in 1981, both the
criminal and the civil docket. Of course, the population of the county has
grown significantly.

Q. Worcester County is such a tight knit community
for the most part and in many cases, you likely know the defendants that come
before you and usually the victims of the crimes and their families. Has that
created challenges as opposed to being a judge in a large metropolitan area
where you might have been more detached from the cases that come before you?

A. That does happen.
When you’re in a small county like ours, you kind of have to check ahead on
your docket to make sure your cousin isn’t coming up for trial. It’s been my
practice, if I know the people, if I have a relationship with the people, I
don’t hear the case. Instead, we get a visiting judge – well not necessarily,
if Judge Groton doesn’t know them, then he’ll hear the case. In the event we
both know them, which is a very real possibility, then we will get a visiting
judge. When courtroom three was always available, that was an easy thing to do.
We’d just call up a visiting judge and say what day suits you and the courtroom
was always available.

A few years later, we
created the family court and we got an additional judge in Circuit Court, so
now there are three. Judge Bloxom is down there full time. Now when we have a
conflict, assuming we go through the process and Judge Groton and Judge Bloxom
are recused from the case, then we have to get a visiting judge, then we have
to wait for one of us is on vacation, or takes a day’s vacation, in order to
get the case timely tried.

Q. You’re retiring now having nearly reached the
mandatory age of 70. Given your druthers, is it time to move on or would you
like to continue to serve on the bench?

A. I think I’m going to
find retirement difficult. There’s something to be said for routine. When I was
in private practice for something like 20 years or close to it, I had a
routine. When I went on the bench at the District Court, I had a routine. When
I came over here, I’ve had a routine for the last 28 and a half years. Now,
I’ve got to find a new routine and I’m not sure how easy that is. Many judges
don’t like retirement and I hope I’m not one of them.

I hope I can find a new
routine. I do have a lot of hobbies. I like to hunt, I like to fish. I do a
little bit of flying and motorcycling, so I’ve got a lot of hobbies I sort of
have to reintroduce myself to, and undoubtedly I’ll do a little more time doing
that. My wife Sallye and I love to travel, particularly in the United States
out west, so hopefully we’ll get to spend a little more time doing that.

Q. Replacing you on the bench will be a difficult task. Will you have a
hand in that process? Do you have an idea on what might happen with that?

A. In August, what will
happen is, Judge Bloxom, who is now the family court judge, is going to move
upstairs and that will leave the family court needing a judge. That is the
judgeship that will hopefully be advertised for shortly. They’ll go before the
Judicial Nominating Commission and various bars will vote on them. They’ll be
interviewed by the commission and usually narrow the list to two or three names
to send to the governor. The governor interviews the candidates and the
appointment is made.

I was appointed at 41
and I think I’ve sat on the bench longer than any judge in the county’s
history. That record will soon likely be broken by Judge Groton, who came on
about two years after I was first appointed to the bench. I won’t have any role
whatsoever in the appointment of a new Circuit Court judge for Worcester
County. When they created the judicial nominating commission, the purpose of
that was to take the politics out of the process because that’s half laymen and
half lawyers.

Q. You’ve mentioned the numerous hobbies you’ve drifted away from over the
years. Does that mean you’re ready to retire after nearly three decades on the
bench?

A. Am I ready for
retirement? The answer to that is an emphatic no. I am fortunate in that some
judges don’t have very many hobbies and, in fact, some have none. I do have
hobbies I enjoy, so I’ll undoubtedly be re-introducing myself to some of them I
haven’t done in quite a while. Sometimes, you just drift away from them.
They’re not part of your routine. I used to have a routine where we rode the
motorcycles every Sunday. Unless it was raining like the devil, we rode those
motorcycles every Sunday.

That was all part of the
routine, but somehow or another, you drift away from those routines. As you get
older, you lose interest in certain hobbies you’ve had, I think everybody does
that somewhat, but you rekindle those. I still enjoy riding motorcycles, and I
still enjoy fishing and hunting, and I still enjoy flying an airplane. We have
a hangar and a little plane at the Ocean City Airport and we’ll fly somewhere
for lunch. It’s a toy. Every now and then, we’ll fly somewhere a little longer,
maybe down to the Carolinas. It’s just neat to be able to fly down to a spot
and be back in the airport lobby by three in the afternoon.

Getting in the right
frame of mind for retirement is where I might have some difficulties, but we’ll
see. Retirement, even though I might find it difficult, does open some other
doors for you. It will be kind of nice to take off for a week or two any time
you want to. That’s a luxury we don’t now have.

Q. Not only does the nominating commission need to
replace a long-time sitting judge, it needs to replace the administrative judge
in one of the fastest growing counties in the state?

A. I’m the
administrative judge for the county, and the chief judge for the circuit, which
is made up of the four lower counties. That’s more of an honorary position,
more of a ribbon-cutting kind of thing. The administrative judge is a whole
different story. It’s all the personnel issues, all the budgetary issues, it’s
the day-to-day operations. It used to take only an hour a month or so, and now
I get people coming in here with administrative issues four to five times
everyday.

From 1981 to date, we
have come a long way. Of course, we’ve had to in order to keep up with the
growth of the population coming into the county. It’s been a very interesting,
intriguing and enjoyable 28 years. They are 28 years I’ll cherish. I have been
honored and it has been my privilege to serve on both the District and Circuit
Courts for all this time. It is an honor.

 

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