Montgomery County's newest District Court judge, James Ryan, took his oath of office last Friday. Now, he says, the fun starts.
"I look forward to it," said Ryan, a lawyer for 18 years and a domestic relations master since 1982. As an arbiter of divorce and child custody matters at the county Judicial Center, he often has spent a full day hearing a single case. But as a District Court judge?
"More action, more people," he said. "The jobs are the same in a lot of ways, but in District Court, there could be 100 cases in a day. They give you a docket over there every morning."
That is what he likes, he said. People. Action.
Ryan, named to the District Court bench Sept. 4 by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, said last week that he sought the appointment because "it was time for me to make a change." At age 46, he had been presiding over domestic relations disputes for five years, and while he said he believes it helped strengthen his own marriage, he will not miss those cases, he said.
"You see the selfishness in people, you really do," he said. "They're not bad people, but they're angry at each other, and they allow that anger to overcome their good judgment. They let their kids get caught in the middle of all the fighting and arguing.
"You see that, and then you say, 'God, I'll never be like that,' " said Ryan, a father of four who has been married since 1964.
He quit smoking, improved his diet, took up jogging and dropped 15 pounds after undergoing heart surgery in 1983. As a result, Ryan said, he is well prepared for the often-busy pace of District Court.
While Circuit Court judges handle felony cases and substantial lawsuits, their counterparts in District Court deal with a much larger volume of petty criminals, traffic offenders and an array of minor civil matters, including evictions and small claims.
Ryan said he would rather preside over a busy court than a peacefully slow one. A lifelong resident of the county and a 1969 graduate of Catholic University's law school, he said he enjoys the give and take of courtroom work, whether as a judge or as a lawyer. That was one reason he became a domestic relations master, he said. As a practicing attorney, Ryan said, he spent too much time outside courtrooms, waiting for his cases to be called.
"I'm apprehensive, sure," Ryan said. As a judge, he said, he hopes not to alienate those who are summoned before him.
For a defendant charged with a minor offense such as disorderly conduct, an appearance in District Court may be the first and last court appearance of his life, he said. "It can be a tense time for a lot of people," Ryan said. " . . . I'm hoping they leave with a good impression of how the system works."