Firm History – The Skeens

Maryland Lawyers: Wright Constable & Skeen- Skeen

John Henry Skeen was already an expert in admiralty law practicing in the Equitable Building when he moved across the hall to join the firm of Frank, Emory & Beeuwkes in early 1921. In 1922, Eli Frank, an eminent attorney, teacher, and member of the firm, was appointed by Maryland Governor Ritchie as an Associate Judge of the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City. Predecessors to Frank, Emory & Beeuwkes included John Carter Rose, a leading attorney and jurist of his day, who had only recently been elevated by President Warren G. Harding to a seat on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and Morris A. Soper, who was thereafter appointed to fill Judge Rose’s vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.

In 1925 the firm moved from its original offices in the Equitable Building to what was later known as the First National Bank Building. With the addition of Reuben Oppenheimer in 1922, the firm changed its name to Emory, Beeuwkes, Skeen & Oppenheimer. Thereafter in the ’30s and ’40s the firm continued to recruit talented attorneys who would become leaders of the Bar.

In 1942 a new associate, John H. Skeen, Jr. joined the firm but left to serve in the Pacific during World War II. In December 1945, young Major Skeen, who had the essential qualifications of a law degree but no experience, was appointed by General Douglas McArthur as chief defense counsel in the war crimes trial of Japanese General Homma Masaharu, “The Beast of Bataan.”

General McArthur gave the young Major Skeen two weeks to prepare his defense of General Homma before a military commission assembled in a makeshift courtroom in the former High Commissioner’s residence in Manila. While acquittal was out of the question, success in this case consisted of convincing the tribunal to order the execution by firing squad rather than hangman’s noose, a shameful way to die for the proud general. General Homma expressed his gratitude in letters of thanks to his defense team and a gift of his ceremonial sword, both of which remain family treasures.

When John H. Skeen, Sr. died in 1951, John H. Skeen, Jr. and his brother William A. Skeen, left what was then the firm of Frank, Skeen & Oppenheimer to start their own practice in the admiralty field. Locating in The Fidelity Building, they were joined by others and continued an active practice in the maritime field for the next 35 years, representing such clients as United States Lines, a leading ocean carrier of its time.

John H. Skeen, Jr. served as a United States Magistrate and Chairman of the commission that recommended establishing the Patuxent Institution, a novel experiment in the treatment and housing of chronic criminal offenders. The Skeens were actively litigating in a number of areas of admiralty law, including towage. In 1955, the firm argued Boston Metals v. The Winding Gulf, 349 U.S. 122, in the United States Supreme Court. Boston Metals was a companion case to the Bisso decision, one of the landmark cases in the field, invalidating exculpatory clauses in towage agreements. Bisso v. Inland Waterways, 249 U.S. 85.

In the 1970′s, the next generation of Skeen lawyers joined the practice.. In due course the firm merged with Constable, Alexander & Daneker, becoming Constable, Alexander, Daneker & Skeen in 1980. In 1986, that firm merged with Wright & Parks to form what is now Wright, Constable & Skeen.