Robert F. Sweeney, 72, who served 25 years as the first chief judge of the Maryland court system that deals with traffic violations, landlord-tenant disputes and a variety of criminal misdemeanors, died of leukemia July 17 at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
In 1971, Judge Sweeney was appointed chief judge of Maryland's newly created statewide district court system, a reform measure that replaced a collection of people's courts, justices of the peace and trial magistrate courts that had existed since colonial times. He retired in 1996 as the chief of a judicial system that had grown to include 99 trial judges sitting in 103 courtrooms in all parts of Maryland. More than 2 million cases are filed in the Maryland district courts each year, and approximately 600,000 result in contested trials.
During his years at the helm of the Maryland district courts, Judge Sweeney pushed for the construction of courthouse facilities and the appointment of qualified judges, and he worked to bring legal uniformity to the judicial system that most directly affects the majority of Maryland residents.
A lifelong resident of Baltimore, he graduated from Loyola College in his home town and received his law degree at the law school of the University of Baltimore. He was a sales executive for Crown Central Petroleum Corp. before he entered a private law practice in Baltimore in 1958.
In 1959, the future judge was magistrate of the Housing Court of Baltimore City, a tribunal whose jurisdiction included housing, fire, sanitation and zoning laws and weights and measures regulations. In this capacity, he instituted a housing clinic to instruct slum dwellers who appeared as defendants in his courtroom in techniques of living in an urban community.
He became a Maryland assistant attorney general in 1961, and in 1964 was named chief of the criminal division of the Maryland attorney general's office. He was appointed deputy attorney general of Maryland in 1966. In that capacity, he was legal adviser to almost every agency and commission of the state government, and he appeared on behalf of the state in hundreds of cases in state and federal courts, including four cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In addition to his judicial work, Judge Sweeney was an energetic public speaker. During the last decade, he had more than 500 addresses in all parts of Maryland on a variety of topics, including lectures at colleges and universities on political science and judicial service. In 1995, he delivered the annual George Washington's Birthday Address to the Senate of Maryland in the old Senate chamber.
He was honored by the Maryland State Bar Association at a special luncheon in 1996 for his 25 years of service as chief district court judge. In 1997, ground was broken in Annapolis for a new district courthouse to be named the Robert F. Sweeney District Court Building.
His wife of 43 years, Elizabeth Lee Andrews Sweeney, died in 1996.
Survivors include two children and six grandchildren.