Ellicott City attorney Ricardo Zwaig became the first Hispanic judge in Howard County after being appointed to the bench by Gov. Martin O'Malley in late July. Zwaig, an immigrant from Argentina, moved to the United States in 1963.
Ellicott City lawyer Ricardo Zwaig was sitting in his optometrist’s office recently, his eyes dilated, when his cell phone rang.
Through blurry vision, he couldn’t make out the number of the caller, but he answered anyway.
“Ricardo,” said a familiar voice on the other end of the phone, “It’s Marty O’Malley. I’m calling to congratulate you.”
With those words, Zwaig, 57, found out he had reached a peak of the legal profession: He was going to become a judge.
“I was just so happy,” Zwaig said in a recent interview in his Ellicott City office. “I was elated. I cried to myself.”
Gov. O’Malley’s selection of Zwaig as the first Hispanic judge in Howard County — and the first male Hispanic judge in the state — meant a lot to the immigrant from Argentina, whose family moved to the United States in 1963.
“I’m really incredibly honored,” he said. “It’s a heavy responsibility. I’m really taking it seriously.”
Zwaig’s father wouldn’t let him speak English in the house, because he wanted his sons to maintain their strong Spanish-speaking roots. Speaking fluent Spanish is a skill Zwaig has used to help his law practice flourish. Between 80 and 90 percent of the clients of Zwaig and Zwaig, which Ricardo runs with his brother, Michael, speak Spanish.
Zwaig’s family fled Argentina when he was 10 during what’s known as the country’s “Black Year,” when rebels seized control of the government.
“We were fleeing the country, because it was in such tumult,” said Zwaig’s mother, Raquel, who lives in Pikesville. “I was afraid.”
Since his appointment, Zwaig’s been getting emotional when he thinks about his father, a salesman who pushed his sons to pursue their education. Zwaig’s dad, Joseph, died three years ago.
“He would have been so proud,” Zwaig said, wiping tears from his eyes. “I came from a family where education, other than love and respect, was the most important thing.”
Raquel Zwaig said she “almost fainted” when she heard of her son’s appointment.
“I’m very happy,” she said. “I have a lot of confidence in him. I’m sorry that my husband couldn’t be here to see it. I couldn’t imagine this happening in Buenos Aires. He’s going to be great.”
Passion for Spanish literature
Ricardo Zwaig graduated in 1977 from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County after majoring in Spanish and history. There, he cultivated a passion for Spanish literature, which he maintains today, constantly reading esteemed works from Mexico, Spain, Colombia and other Spanish-speaking countries.
He spent a year teaching in Colorado after graduation, before enrolling at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore.
Zwaig said an interest in constitutional law drew him to the field.
“It was a romantic kind of thing,” he said.
After working for 27 years in law, Zwaig sees the rule of law as being a distinguishing characteristic of the United States.
“It was the element that set us apart from … Latin America,” he said. “Nowhere is it applied with the degree of consistency that it is applied here.”
Prior to joining his brother at their law firm, Zwaig spent 19 years as a state and federal public defender.
At Zwaig and Zwaig, which has offices in Ellicott City and Baltimore, his firm specializes in criminal, business and immigration law. He has represented Spanish-speaking clients in several high-profile cases, including a 2006 hit-and-run case in which a toddler was dragged to death after his stroller was struck by a pickup truck.
That trial, during which Zwaig’s client was sentenced to 10 years in prison for manslaughter, was “a really sad case,” he said.
“We did the best we could with the facts we had,” he said. “I don’t think that case defines me.”
Zwaig also represented the chief operating officer of Network Technologies Group, who was one of four executives indicted federally in a fraud case.
Convinced his client was innocent, Zwaig said he vigorously researched the case and presented evidence that cleared his client to federal prosecutors, who agreed to drop the charges.
“He just started crying,” Zwaig said of his client.
O’Malley selected Zwaig for the District Court judgeship July 23 to replace Alice P. Clark, who retired in February.
Zwaig said the appointment is slightly “bittersweet,” because he must stop practicing law with his brother, but he believes his Hispanic background gives a perspective needed on the court.
“The fact that I’m Latino, that gives me a different viewpoint,” he said. “It’s not better or worse, just different.
“I will treat people with total respect.” he said. “I will apply the law. I will continue to learn and research the law. I will be on top of issues with the law. I’m going to be fair.”