Howard S. Chasanow, a Maryland judge for 28 years at the district, circuit and appellate court level who became a professional mediator of legal disputes, died April 2 at a hospital in Baltimore. He died the day before his 80th birthday.
Judge Chasanow, a resident of College Park, Md., died of spinal injuries resulting from a two-vehicle accident in Berwyn Heights, Md., on March 20, said a brother-in-law, Ken Greenberger. He was the only one hurt in the accident, Greenberger said.
Judge Chasanow was appointed in 1971 to a seat on the District Court, which in Maryland hears such cases as landlord-tenant disputes, motor vehicle violations, misdemeanors and certain felonies.
As a Circuit Court judge in Prince George’s County from 1977 to 1990, he presided over jury trials, serious criminal cases and major civil cases, including such family law cases as divorces and child custody disputes.
He retired from the bench in 1999 after nine years on the Maryland Court of Appeals, the highest judicial panel in the state. He spent the next 15 years as a full-time mediator, helping resolve disputes ranging from estates and trusts to intellectual property to medical malpractice. He worked for many years for the dispute resolution provider JAMS, which helps keep cases from clogging the judicial system and saves the large expense of a trial.
“The phrase I hate most is ‘Good mediation is when both sides walk out equally unhappy,’ ” Judge Chasanow told the Daily Record of Baltimore in 2011. “A good mediation is when people walk out understanding they’ve reached a fair compromise.”
During his career on the bench, he was reportedly known among judges for a liberal bent, but Judge Chasanow steadfastly refused to accept such easy categorizations.
“Look, there are some crimes when I’m the toughest judge on this circuit,” he told The Washington Post in 1979. “Second offenders on [drunk driving] go to jail in my court no matter who they are, doctors, lawyers. . . . I don’t care. People who hit policemen or teachers go to jail.”
Howard Stuart Chasanow was born in Washington on April 3, 1937, and grew up in Greenbelt, Md. His father, Abraham, was a Navy Department employee who, in a highly publicized case, was suspended in 1953 as an alleged security risk.
It was the peak of a communists-in-government scare stoked by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.), and the elder Chasanow fought the accusation for 13 months.
In public hearings, the Navy produced no evidence to support the charges, nor did it identify an accuser. The Navy’s case, The Post reported, was “based on rumor, incorrect testimony, shoddy investigative techniques and had possibly been tinged by anti-Semitism.” He was reinstated with an apology from the Navy for what it conceded was a “grave injustice.”
Mr. Chasanow was reportedly offered a new Navy position but left government service and later practiced law and became a real estate broker. Anthony Lewis, then a reporter for the Washington Daily News and later for the New York Times, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Abraham Chasanow case.
“That was an extremely traumatic time for me,” Howard Chasanow, a teenager at the time, told The Post in 1979. “When my dad was vindicated the way he was, it was very important to all of us.”
His interest in the law stemmed in large part from the legal battle his father faced. He graduated from the University of Maryland in 1958 and from its law school in 1961. He received a master’s degree from Harvard Law School in 1962. After Air Force service, he was an assistant prosecutor in Prince George’s County and a lawyer in private practice.
His first marriage, to Marilyn Madden, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 34 years, Deborah Koss Chasanow, senior U.S. District Court judge for the District of Maryland, of College Park; a daughter from his first marriage, Andrea Gentle of London; three sisters, former Post food critic Phyllis Richman of Washington, Myrna Chasanow of Cheverly, Md., and Ruth Heitin of Alexandria; and two grandsons.
Around the Prince George’s County Courthouse, Judge Chasanow liked to recount “the comma that saved a life.”
A condemned man, the judge said, was en route to his execution when a telegram from the governor arrived. It read: “Pardon, impossible to execute.” He was spared.
Only later did the warden discover there had been a typographical error. This was what had been intended: “Pardon impossible to execute.” The inadvertent comma had saved the condemned man’s life and the state had repealed the death penalty before the warden discovered the error.
In May 1979, Judge Chasanow faced a similar situation in a death penalty case, declaring in court that his decision had to be based on “grammar and legislative intent,” and he said he stayed up most of the night poring through old grammar books.
The defendant, William Joseph Parker, a transient Prince George’s County fireman, had been convicted of murder and rape. The relevant Maryland law allowed the death penalty for a conviction of murder while committing “rape or a sexual offense in the first degree.”
Parker was convicted of murder and second-degree rape. Because there was no comma in the statute after the word rape, Judge Chasanow concluded the death penalty was not applicable.
He sentenced the man to life in prison.
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