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Editorial Advisory Board: With Mel Sykes, truth is the starting point

For 67 years, the Maryland Bar has been graced by the contributions of Mel Sykes, but at a young 91 years of age, he has announced his retirement. Since his graduation from Harvard Law School in 1948, Mel has been the lawyer we all strive to be. Modest and unassuming, he has consistently employed a mastery of all relevant facts, an encyclopedic knowledge of law, and an appreciation for precise language, logic and reason, tempered by civility and empathy, in the service of clients, the legal community and the community at large. He has always treated those privileged to work with him and those who were his adversaries with courtesy and respect, teaching us all to be better lawyers by taking careful note of what he wrote and said.

Skeptical and empirical, Mel insisted on a foundation of truth as a starting point and dug until he had it, with all its complications and nuances. As a result, he had credibility unmatched in the legal community. When Mel spoke, everyone listened. But more important, before Mel spoke, he listened.

Mel has played a critical role in shaping Maryland law. He has argued more than 200 cases in the Maryland appellate courts, including successfully defending a Baltimore City ordinance requiring the City to divest its retirement funds from South Africa and convincing the Court of Appeals to strike a racially discriminatory condition from a bequest to Keswick Home and refuse to give effect to an alternative disposition. For more than fifty years, he served on the Court of Appeals of Maryland Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure and a host of other bodies that have shaped and updated Maryland law. An incomplete list includes his membership in the following Governor’s Commissions: to Revise the Annotated Code of Maryland (1970-78), to Study State Aid to Nonpublic Education (1971), to Revise and Recodify the Testamentary Laws (1968-69). He also served on the Maryland Constitutional Convention Commission (1966-67), the Baltimore City Charter Revision Commission (1962-63), the Legislative Council Committee on Revision of Condemnation Laws (1961-63), the State Commission to Revise Laws Relating to Public Service Commission (1953-55), and the State Commission to Study the Judiciary (Reporter, 1953).

Mel even managed the nearly unique feat of writing a law review article that is a pleasure to read, has relevance to the practice of law and is still on point 30 years later. In characterizing the tendency of appellate judges to rely on block quotations from earlier cases in lieu of analysis, Mel opens: “The agglutinative style, formerly a product of pastepot and shears, but now made even more popular by the availability of copying machines and scotch tape, is characterized by inserting globs of old prose from earlier opinions into new opinions.” A Modest Proposal for a Change in Maryland’s Statutes Quo, 43 Md. L. Rev. 647 (1984).

Mel’s breadth of experience in the practice of law is unparalleled. According to a 2004 article in The Daily Record, Court of Appeals Judge Alan M. Wilner characterized Mel as “one of the very rare breed of lawyers still around who can do everything well.” That breed is very rare: One member of this editorial board worked with Mel to draft an appeal of an order by an Italian court to extradite an arrestee to the American courts. When it was complete, Mel translated the appeal into Italian and it was filed by the Italian lawyers verbatim. The appeal was successful.

It is difficult to think of an honor that has not been awarded him, but those awards are not the measure of his contribution to the Maryland legal community. That is to be found in his legacy: the many, within and without the legal community, to whom he has been a friend, a mentor, a counselor or a champion. Some of the best among us have learned from him – we just wish we had learned more and better.

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

Wesley D. Blakeslee

Arthur F. Fergenson

Daniel F. Goldstein

Caroline Griffin

Elizabeth Kameen

Stephen Meehan

C. William Michaels

Gale Rasin

William Reynolds

Norman Smith

H. Mark Stichel

Ferrier R. Stillman

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the Board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the Bench, Bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, majority views and signed rebuttals will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.