The Constant Constables
James Constable, the fifth generation of Constables to practice law in Maryland, tells us about his passion for preserving land, growing up in the country, and that time his great-great uncle almost clobbered a U.S. president
Published in 2015 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine
on December 12, 2014
Updated on October 2, 2019
Q: The Constables have quite the legal legacy. Can you tell me about that?
A: There’s a hell of a lot to tell. It goes back to my great-great-grandfather. He was a highly respected lawyer named Albert Constable, born in Chestertown, Maryland, in 1805. He lived on the banks of the Susquehanna River. He was actually, I believe, the first elected judge of the Baltimore, Cecil, Harford county circuit.
His son’s name was also Albert. He was well-known as an appellate lawyer. A dashing, good-looking fella. His home base was in Cecil County. He was taking a stroll after dinner in Cecil County, and some fella came out of the woods and robbed him and shot him and he died.
He had a number of sons, and three of them were lawyers. One of them became a judge on the Court of Appeals in Maryland; one of them was in private practice in Elkton; and then my grandfather was the third, and he came down to Baltimore. He practiced law until he was 92. A wonderful man. He produced three sons, one of whom was my father, also a lawyer. There was a time where the three of us practiced in the same firm. We had a wonderful time.
Q: What’s your favorite ancestral anecdote?
A: There’s a wonderful story about one of my great-great uncles who practiced in Ohio, and he was out during the Civil War. He heard of a judgeship opening up, and he tracked down his friend, Abraham Lincoln.
Q: That’s a nice guy to know.
A: This was when Abraham Lincoln was either a congressman or he had just left the Congress. Back in those days, the trial lawyers—and Lincoln was a very abled trial lawyer—they and the judges would ride circuit. They’d all get together [and ride] from county seat to county seat, and the judge would sit on the bench in the new county seat and the lawyers would try the cases, and then they’d all meet in various hotels and inns in the evening to socialize and tell stories and have a good old time.
My uncle tracked Lincoln down in one of these inns and asked him if he could use his political persuasion to get him a judgeship. Lincoln said, ‘Well, I’d love to, but I already promised that to somebody else. But next time there’s a judgeship that you want, come see me.’
Two or three years later, Lincoln changed his political party. My uncle heard of another judgeship, and he tracks Lincoln down to another hotel and he goes in—there’s a lot of people there, telling stories and drinking. So he goes up to Lincoln and says, ‘Abe, I’m here again. There’s another judgeship, and I’d certainly like your help.’ Lincoln turns to him and says, ‘Well, Mr. Constable, I’ve changed political parties to the right party. You’re still in the wrong party. I’m not going to help you.’
And my uncle took a swing at him! They were really having it out, but there were enough people there to keep them from killing each other.
This story is written up in American Heritage. I’d heard it and I never knew if it was true, and then somebody sent me the article.
Q: Did you always know what kind of lawyer you wanted to be?
A: I fell into my practice. I started off doing work for railroads. To do that, I had to understand all sorts of railroad-type law; transportation law. I became very adept at that, and it was a lot of fun—some wonderful people that work with railroads and some very unique problems—and that also brought me into some maritime law because so many shipments that end up on railroads come from across the ocean. That was a lot of fun.
Then I started developing a practice with small and midsized businesses. Well, when you represent small and midsized businesses, you’re probably better off if you are somewhat general in business law so you can field a lot of different business type of issues: taxes, employment, real estate, general corporate structure and governance, and to some extent, securities law. When you represent much larger businesses, you’re probably better off by being a specialist. But with small businesses, you get such a variety of problems. And you also have to understand the owners who own the business: how do they think, what are their estate planning needs, and how does the business fit into that, succession planning. … So it’s sort of a general business practice nowadays.
I’ve also been an arbitrator for probably 30 years, arbitrated probably 250 cases over the course of my career, both international commercial disputes and U.S. commercial disputes. I arbitrate small and large multimillion-dollar disputes and do some mediation of commercial disputes.
Q: You’re also chair of the Maryland Environmental Trust, which protects more than 130,000 acres of land in the state, and president of the Manor Conservancy.
A: That land, the core area, is called My Lady’s Manor.
It was carved out by, I believe, the 3rd Lord Baltimore, who used to ride from St. Mary’s City down in southern Maryland to Philadelphia to work on treaties with the Indians and things like that. He fell in love with that part of Maryland, so he carved out 10,000 acres and he gave it to his then-wife.
After the war, you had tenants on that property, some of which were loyal to the Crown, and some of which were not, and were part of the Revolution. The question was, what happens to all this land? Those who were loyal to the Crown were out of luck, and they lost the land, and then they had a series of auctions and some of the land ended up in the hands of returning revolutionaries, officers pretty high up in the ranks, and they wound up with some of it. As a matter of fact, one of them wound up with the house [I own now].
When I got out of law school in 1968, I bought a farm out there on a real gamble because I didn’t have any money really. Then I got involved in the preservation, because I didn’t want to see the whole area ruined. Developers saw it as a ripe target.
The Trust had the Manor put on the National Register of Historic Places, and we could justify that by saying that really, it is today very similar to what it was when it was founded. Some of the old houses are still there, many of the farms that are still farms have some of the same boundaries that they had when they were leased out in the 1730s. Many of the descendants of the same families are still in the area. The lifestyle is the same. People go to the same church that they did back in the 18th century, and they do the same things for recreation.
That’s something that you don’t find very often in the United States.
Q: Why aren’t you an environmental lawyer? It sounds like it’d be a good fit.
A: Well, I do the work, in a sense. Really, land preservation is protecting the environment, and that’s my huge outside interest, and there are many, many legal issues involved. So in my history of doing land preservation, from many different angles, I’m practicing law to a large extent.
When you go back to the early days of land preservation when I started doing this, zoning and planning was the only way you could protect the land. And then the landscape changed over the years so that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, permanent easements became a possibility because they are incentivized by favorable tax treatment. Easements protect the land in perpetuity, in most cases.
Also in the 1980s, people got very involved in historic preservation, and we took advantage of that in two primary ways: one was putting My Lady’s Manor on the National Register, and another was in Baltimore County, getting our office of zoning to enact a Landmark Preservation Commission that would basically protect certain landmarks and districts. I was very involved in writing the state law that enabled the counties to do that, and then I was involved in helping the county write its own law; then I was chairman of that commission for a number of years.
In the current roles that I play, I’m the president of the Manor Conservancy, which is a local land trust in Baltimore County and Harford County; and of course the chair of the Trust. A great many of the issues that we are confronted with really do have some sort of a tie-in with legal issues and the application of various laws. You’ve got to have an understanding of the legal landscape. A lot of very complex tax issues, a lot of real estate issues, succession planning issues. All of that is environmental law; it just doesn’t deal with hazardous waste.
Q: What was your favorite thing about growing up in the country?
A: I was always a country guy. Before I was 12, we lived in what had been country, but about 15 miles closer to Baltimore. And then when that got developed, we moved out. I just love the outdoors. The first jobs we were allowed to have when we were teenagers was working on farms, mainly making hay and throwing hay bales around and driving old John Deere tractors and seeing who could throw hay bales higher than the other guy up in the barn. It’s just a wonderful life out there. I had to buy my farm. Of course, around the house, we have a lot of lawn and a lot of gardens and orchards to take care of and all of that. It’s a lot of work, but it’s not overbearing.
Q: How old is the house?
A: According to the grassroots history of My Lady’s Manor, it originated in 1731. Whether that’s correct or not is anybody’s guess.
When I bought it, it was in terrible shape. We’ve really turned it into what I consider a very lovely farm and a very lovely house. You get a great sense of, wow, we’ve built this. That’s what’s really satisfying about it, and the fact that it is part of a community that we’ve helped to preserve.
Q: How do you balance the land and the law?
A: [The Trust work is] very time-consuming, but I do an awful lot very early in the morning or in the evening. Sometimes in the middle of the day, I’ll go down to their offices for board meetings and committee meetings. There’s a lot of work to it, but I don’t consider it work, because I enjoy it. When you get involved in protecting land, protecting the environment, it’s very satisfying. You can look back and say, you know, gosh, I’ve really helped protect the quality of life that could’ve easily been destroyed. It’s like being an architect. At the end of your career, you can look back and you can see what you did and say, gosh, this is good. No. This is great.