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
BY AMY KATES
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
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.
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.