Number of women on the bench on the rise in Md.

National state-court average of women judges is 27.5 pct.

By Steve Lash
The Daily Record of Baltimore

BALTIMORE (AP) — The story comes from a time before Justice Sandra Day O’Connor took her seat, astronaut Sally Ride took flight and Speaker Nancy Pelosi took the gavel at the U.S. House of Representatives.

It was December 1978, and acting Maryland Gov. Blair Lee had just appointed Rita C. Davidson to be the first woman judge on the state’s highest court.

Davidson said her six soon-to-be colleagues — all male — should not be discomfited by a woman’s presence on the Court of Appeals.

“Men generally like women,” said Davidson, who served on the bench from 1979 until her death in 1984. “I find no reason to believe that my newfound colleagues on the Court of Appeals will deviate from that.”

Now, the seven-member Court of Appeals has three women on its roster and a retired judge, Irma Raker, who can sit by assignment. Of the state’s 280 judges, 107 (or 38.2 percent) are women, compared with 99 of 274 judges (36.1 percent) as of July 1, 2011, according to Maryland Judiciary data.

While that’s far short of half, it’s also far better than the national state-court average of 27.5 percent, according to the State University of New York at Albany’s Center for Women in Government & Civil Society in a report released in July.

And of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s 102 judicial appointments since taking office in January 2007, 46, or 45.1 percent, have been women, an uptick from 43.7 percent as of last September.

Some call the gains historical progress; others call it a good start.

“In the practice of law, we’ve come a long way but not far enough,” said Baltimore City Circuit Judge Pamela J. White.

White said she still sees instances where women are slighted.

Maryland District Judge Shannon E. Avery said sexist comments persist in the state’s courtrooms, such as when male attorneys are addressed as “counselor” and women are addressed as “ma’am.”

Avery voiced concern for young female attorneys and judges who believe they will be treated as well as men.

“Women can’t stop standing up for themselves,” said Avery, who sits in Baltimore. “Times really haven’t changed.”

She urged her female colleagues on the bench to serve as mentors to the young women and be ready to help them when they experience the subtle sexism, such as being told a pantsuit is inappropriate, or more flagrant discrimination.

“Young women do encounter a rude awakening, and I am concerned that they don’t have anywhere to go or anyone to go to,” Avery said.

Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Toni E. Clarke said that, despite the increasing numbers of women judges, she occasionally senses a tone of sexism from some older male attorneys who appear before her, vocal intonations that she suspects do not occur before her male colleagues on the bench.

The instances are subtle, such as an interruption while she is making a ruling or finishing a sentence, but it is there and has been pointed out to her by her bailiffs and clerks, said Clarke, who chairs Maryland’s chapter of the National Association of Women Judges Inc.

“It’s one of those things that you know it when you see it, but you don’t make a big deal about it,” Clarke said. “You try not to let that get in the way of getting the case done. You have a jury. You don’t have time for that.”

The sexism, when she senses it, spurs her to be an even more effective judge.

“I do still think that we have to be better than or strive to be better than our male counterparts,” Clarke said. “All in all, I think that our bar is pretty respectful.”

Four of the 12 judges on the intermediate Court of Special Appeals are women, as are 59 of the 153 circuit court judges. Forty-one of the 108 district court judges are female, according to the Maryland Judiciary.

Women have reached leadership positions at the circuit court level, holding three of the state’s eight administrative judgeships. The administrative judges, appointed by Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, oversee court operations in Maryland’s eight geographical judicial circuits.

Retired Judge Irma S. Raker, who in 1994 became the second woman on the Court of Appeals, said she could not recall any disparate treatment during her years on the bench, with the possible exception of longtime Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, whose actions were more chivalrous than chauvinist.

“Chief Judge Murphy, if anybody used an off-color word, he would apologize to me” but not the men in the room, Raker said of the jurist who led the court from 1972 to 1996.

“By ‘94, even though when I went on the court it was all male, the judiciary was used to women, and having a woman was just not anything particularly remarkable,” said Raker, who reached the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70 in 2008. “I really did not see any adverse treatment within the judiciary based on gender.”

Raker, in describing her treatment on the bench, quoted a line often attributed to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that “a wise old man and a wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases.”

Gender diversity on the bench “brings different life experiences and perspectives that really enrich the decision-making process,” Raker said.

That’s not to say that gender equality has always been the rule in Maryland, Raker said, recalling her early career as the first female assistant state’s attorney in Montgomery County.

“In the ‘70s, it was different,” Raker said, noting her meetings with male police officers to discuss upcoming criminal trials.

“I saw a lot of tight jaws” from the officers who believed “criminal law was just too dirty for women,” Raker said. “You are dealing with blood and gore.”

But Raker said she had a ready answer when officers would ask her when the assistant state’s attorney would arrive.

“I’m him,” she would respond.

“That was more challenging than going on to the Court of Appeals with six males and me,” Raker said.

Raker, who was appointed to the Montgomery County Circuit Court in 1982, knew that women were making progress when she presided over a trial in which the prosecutor, defense attorney, sheriff and even the defendant were women.

“It showed changes from when I started practicing law in the ‘70s, when there were almost no women practicing criminal law,” Raker said.