Judges overcame challenges to break down barriers

BridgeTower Media Newswires
BALTIMORE — Before she was sworn in as the first female chief judge in the Baltimore City Circuit Court, Wanda Keyes Heard was a little girl in a class of mostly white children.

Her parents, who lived in New York, sued the school system to desegregate the schools.

The school was forced to create one classroom with mixed-race students, and Keyes Heard was the only African-American girl in the class. Most other African-American students at the “integrated” school were put in segregated classrooms.

That experience put her on the path to leadership, going to college in Maryland and joining the city bench in 1999. She attributes much of her success to the early support of her father, who was an educator.

“There were no African-American women lawyers that I knew of,” Heard said. “But yet he encouraged me and told me that I could do anything I wanted to do with an education. I put my head to the grindstone, I worked hard, I took opportunities to do things in the law.”

The number of women judges in Maryland has been growing, to about 41 percent in 2018, compared to about 29 percent in 2008, according to a report produced by Forster-Long and the National Association of Women Judges. Still, those numbers trend under what is reflected in the general population.

For instance, a report by progressive group The American Constitution Society, “Gavel Gap,” found that Maryland state court judges as of December 2014 were 39.7 percent women, compared with 51.5 percent women in the state population.

Women of color were even less represented, 17 percent female judges “of color” compared to 25 percent of the population.

Heard, who became chief judge as the most senior judge, said that she hopes her holding the role will dispel any “nonsense” that a woman, or a black woman, can’t be a chief judge and conduct ceremonies in a professional and judicial way.

“I hope that I do leave an impact that might help further the view of women as judges,” Heard said. “Not to say that it’s solely because I’m a woman but that they grow to understand that women are capable of being and standing in the roles where men traditionally have stood.”

The women who have risen through the ranks of judges in Maryland today are leading innovative programs, going out of their way to speak to community groups and inspire young people to follow their dreams. They haven’t been deterred during years of being one of the only women in a room.

Even more recent appointments are still breaking barriers.

Judge Donine Carrington was appointed to the bench in October 2017 and is the first African-American woman to serve on the Charles County Circuit Court.

“I believe that it is still difficult for women as evidenced by me being the first African-American woman judge but progress and change is among us and I am humbled to be at the forefront of this change,” Carrington stated in an email.

She has started a kiddie court program where elementary school girls come to her courtroom and role play a jury trial of “Who stole the milk and cookies?” in addition to more traditional internship and shadow programs for older students.

Judge Cathleen Vitale of the Anne Arundel Circuit Court is a self-described “law geek” who, upon taking the bench, immediately read the “Maryland Rules” cover to cover.

Vitale, a former Anne Arundel County Council member and state delegate, met U.S. Rep. Marjorie Holt when she was in junior high school. She was the first woman lawyer she knew.

Holt encouraged her, pushing her in law school to apply for competitive clerkships and opportunities at the state’s attorney’s office. She told her about her own experience as a woman serving on the House Armed Services Committee and told Vitale not to give up.

“She just had this way of making me very comfortable and really bolstering me to believe I could do and go after anything I wanted to,” Vitale said.

Becoming a leader from the judiciary branch

Judge Nicole Pastore-Klein of the Baltimore City District Court heard it over and over once she started sitting on the bench: The defendants couldn’t find a job.

They had applied and applied but were standing before her again with no job and a new criminal charge.

After the unrest of April 2015, Pastore-Klein spent a year researching and then created the District Court Re-entry Project, which offers job training and job search assistance to people referred through the district court.

People need to face consequences for their actions, Pastore-Klein said. But they can also turn their lives around.

“You have to be there to aid and assist and do what we can do to help people become productive members of society,” she said.

In October, the program will celebrate its fifth graduation, and has had 92 graduates thus far. Of those 92, only one has reoffended. In Maryland generally, about half of the offenders released from prison return within three years of their release, Pastore-Klein stated in a law review article on the project.

In her own career, Pastore-Klein was the first attorney in her family and the first one to go to college. She interned for Judge Arrie Davis on the Court of Special Appeals and found that to be a critical connection. As a result, she has started an internship program at her high school, Notre Dame Preparatory School, that connects young women with similar internship experiences in law, medicine and business.

Judge Sharon V. Burrell speaks at graduations, cotillions, the church she grew up in, career days -- she takes those opportunities to speak to groups to give back and serve as a role model.

“I’ve been given a great honor and responsibility and I take it seriously,” Burrell said.

A public school student in Washington D.C., her parents stressed the importance of an education. She was the first person in her family to graduate from college and went on to earn her J.D. from Harvard Law School.

She clerked for Judge Harry A. Cole, the first African American to serve on the Maryland Court of Appeals. For 21 years, she served in the Montgomery County Attorney’s Office. About 10 years ago, she was the first African-American female judge appointed to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County.

“The bench should reflect society, a community that you serve. You bring your experiences with you to the bench,” Burrell said. “I think it’s helpful to have people of varying experiences and you definitely should have female judges.”


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