Former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs passed away on January 12, 2022. His Washington Post obituary cites his prosecution of the “Catonsville Nine” as one of the highlights of his career. Personally, I think his advocacy on behalf of the “Rockwood Nine” was instrumental in saving part of Rockwood National Girl Scout Camp.
The Catonsville Nine
The Catonsville Nine case dates to May 1968, when two Catholic priests and seven Catholic activists stormed a Draft Board office in Catonsville, Maryland, to destroy draft records. Sachs, then US Attorney for Maryland, successfully prosecuted the nine, arguing that, however just their cause might have been, their actions were illegal.
The Rockwood Nine
While it is hard to top the mental image of cat-burglar priests carrying out some Mission Impossible style caper, I can top that.
Imagine several dozen Junior Girl Scouts, all in uniform, marching into the Montgomery County, Maryland, Courthouse on January 29, 1979, to file a class-action lawsuit against the Girl Scouts of the USA. Two attorneys, brandishing giant, overstuffed briefcases accompanied them, as did an elderly woman who had been in the very first Girl Scout troop. The media had been tipped off about the procession, and photographers were on hand.
One of the attorneys, Maryland Assistant Attorney General Koontz, stepped in front of brandished microphones to explain the scene. Stephen H. Sachs, who had just been sworn in as Maryland Attorney General, had joined the girls’ lawsuit as the tenth plaintiff, citing an obscure law from 1931 that obligated the Attorney General to protect the interest of a charitable trust.
Rockwood had been the country estate of Washington philanthropist Carolyn Caughey, who left her considerable wealth to the Girl Scouts of the USA upon her death in 1936. Caughey created a trust that gave the Girl Scouts the 67-acre Rockwood immediately, while her other properties and investments would be liquidated and distributed to the Girl Scouts over time–provided the Girl Scouts used Rockwood for “character-building purposes.” When GSUSA sold Rockwood to a residential developer in 1978, a group of adult volunteers argued that the sale violated the terms of Mrs. Caughey’s bequest. GSUSA officials brushed off their inquiries, saying the national office dealt with councils, not individuals. Frustrated, seven adults and two girls (those in the photo above) went to court to block the sale.
Back to the Courthouse
When AG Sachs entered the fray, GSUSA could no longer dismiss the Rockwood opposition as a mere nuisance. Now they had to take notice.
The lawsuit unfolded over the next two years, in court filings, document requests, and depositions. Rockwood supporters created a formal organization, Friends of Rockwood, and raised money for legal fees through donations, bake sales, yard sales, and other grass-roots efforts. GSUSA tried as much as possible to ignore the Rockwood Nine and their attorney and communicate only with Sachs.
Both sides were hampered by poor-record keeping at GSUSA. There were plenty of rumors and legends about Mrs. Caughey and the acquisition of Rockwood, but neither side could come up with hard evidence. At one point Sachs even complained that GSUSA had ignored his requests for information.
Time to Settle, Folks
Ultimately, Sachs decided that neither side had a particularly strong case and that settlement would be in the best interests of all. The Attorney General’s Office approached the Montgomery County Parks office about turning part of Rockwood into a county park. The answer was favorable–provided that the deal include funds to improve the land and buildings.
By the time of the sale, Rockwood had grown to 93 acres.
The process of getting everyone on board with the compromise is too long for a blog post; the important part is that Sachs did. GSUSA sold the land, but had to pay the Rockwood Nine’s legal costs ($60,000) and seed money to Montgomery Parks (almost $1 million).
Today’s Rockwood Manor Park sits on 30 acres, and iconic buildings, especially the Manor House, remain. It is a popular venue for weddings and small group meetings.
Camp sales continue to be a point of contention between Girl Scout councils and members. I’m often asked what was the Rockwood difference? What advice can I offer?
I firmly believe the Rockwood difference was Stephen Sachs. His participation made the stakes much higher for GSUSA. With the Attorney General watching, volunteer complaints could no longer be ignored.
©2022 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian