The first morning by himself on the District Court bench -- Paul Ambrose McGuckian draws a deep breath as he envisions it: no one to turn to for quick advice, everyone waiting as he ponders for a moment, deciding what's right, or what he hopes is right, then rendering judgment.
The day is coming.
"I've been quaking," said McGuckian, who will take the judge's oath Sept. 4 after eight years as Montgomery County attorney. "Actually there's a two-week orientation period where you sit with other judges. Then comes your first day on your own. That's when you're alone. You're the absolute final voice. I've been thinking about that a lot."
After serving as the county government's chief legal adviser, managing a staff and budget that have doubled in size since 1979 and an office workload that has increased dramatically, McGuckian, whose office provides county departments with legal opinions and represents the county in civil cases, wanted something new. He wanted what Gov. William Donald Schaefer gave him Aug. 8, an appointment to the District Court bench in Rockville. He will replace Judge Charles Woodward, who retired last month.
"I had to stop and think about it," said McGuckian, 49. "The isolation that sometimes happens to judges -- the deference that people often give to judges that makes them seem apart from other people -- I don't relish that happening. That was a real consideration."
Nonetheless, he sought the appointment. "It was something I decided I wanted to do," he said. "I guess it's . . . well, this is a cliche, but I'm looking forward to the challenge of it. The change."
McGuckian's resignation takes effect Monday.
He's winding down now, keeping his calendar at the county Executive Office Building as clear as he can. During an interview last week, he relaxed on a couch in the mild clutter of his modest office. A putter rested against the wall beside him, a stack of papers here, a pile of folders there. He sat back while his coffee grew cold. Rolling a golf ball between his palms, he reminisced about how busy he used to be.
"It was a smaller office when I arrived, and much less trial-oriented," McGuckian said. "Our litigations have increased several hundred percent in the last eight or nine years."
The case load has grown for many reasons, he said, not the least of which is the self-insurance fund the county established in 1978 with Montgomery College, the City of Rockville, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and the county Board of Education and Housing Opportunities Commission. Claims cases once handled by their private insurance carriers suddenly fell to the county attorney's office.
"When I came, at about the beginning of the fund, we had one lawyer handling it," McGuckian said. "Now we have eight lawyers handling it, and even then we don't have enough. We're seriously understaffed."
When the legislature in the early 1980s empowered county inspectors to issue spot citations for zoning violations, it produced a marked increase in code enforcement and a weightier case load for his staff, McGuckian said. The load grew still heavier last year, he said, because the state gave Montgomery's executive branch a stronger voice in land-use planning, and McGuckian's office must provide the legal guidance.
"And civil rights claims have skyrocketed," he said. The Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that municipalities were "persons" under the Civil Rights Act of 1871 and could be sued for allegedly violating it.
The 1871 law made it possible for someone to sue another person if that person may have violated his civil rights.
"A prisoner at the detention center doesn't like the way he's being treated, for instance," McGuckian said. "We literally had a case where a prisoner didn't like the seasoning in his food, so he files a claim under the Civil Rights Act . . . and we have to go to federal court and defend it. There's been a steady increase of that."
When then-County Executive Charles Gilchrist hired McGuckian in January 1979, the county attorney had a $944,770 budget and a staff of 25, including 19 lawyers. This fiscal year's budget exceeds $2 million, and the staff size has climbed to about 50, including 25 lawyers.
But it is still not enough, McGuckian said. He said the office needs at least five more lawyers, and he urged that his successor seek the money to hire them. "The department heads are very unhappy. They don't get a fast enough turnaround on their requests for legal opinions because our litigations have to take precedence," he said.
As McGuckian began his final week on the job Monday, County Executive Sidney Kramer had not said publicly who his successor will be.
McGuckian, who is divorced, lives in Rockville's West End with his two daughters, Rachel and Emily, both college students. He golfs, sometimes well, often not, and relaxes on a 64-acre farm he owns in Pennsylvania with friends.
McGuckianis paid about $79,000 a year as county attorney. Although he'll start at $66,000 a year as a state-employed judge, he's eligible for a county pension, which will add to his annual income, he said. The amount of his pension could not be immediately determined.
But his mixed emotions were apparent. "This is the best legal job in the county," said McGuckian, who was an assistant county attorney for five years before entering private practice in 1971. "I'm going to miss very much the mix of law and policy."
He has had enough, though. If the judgeship hadn't come along, he said, he would have returned to private practice.
"I don't think I'm coasting, but I don't have the new ideas I had eight or nine years ago," McGuckian said. "I think you can stay in a job too long. You lose the spark. You need change. It's time for somebody else to come here now and recharge things up."