First Woman Ascends to Chief Judge Position on Maryland Court of Appeals, and State’s Highset Court has First Ever Female-Majority
On July 6, 2013, Governor Martin O’Malley appointed the Honorable Mary Ellen Barbera as the new Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of Maryland.
Not only did Barbera, a former Baltimore City Public School teacher, become the first woman to head the Court of Appeals, but O’Malley’s concurrent promotion of then-Court of Special Appeals Judge Shirley M. Watts to the high court also established the Court of Appeals’ first-ever female majority in its nearly 240-year history.
This shift in the bench’s gender dynamic was but the first of many changes coming to a Judiciary facing a new technological era and tectonic shifts in the practice of law. By the time of Judge Barbera’s appointment, the high court had drawn criticism from some who felt that its decisions—some of which came several years after argument— did not reflect a timely administration of justice. In October 2013, the new Chief Judge boldly declared that decisions on all arguments presented to the Court of Appeals would be rendered before the end of the term in which they were heard. Judge Barbera and her colleagues in fact issued opinions on all 127 cases the Court of Appeals heard during its 2013–2014 term, four days in advance of its self-imposed August 31 deadline.
Barbera’s tenure also involved a seismic shift in technology, as the court system transitioned to Maryland Electronic Courts (MDEC), which debuted October 14, 2014, in Anne Arundel County. While the system is admittedly “complex,” Barbera noted that the system ultimately benefits its end-users.
In September 2014, Judge Barbera approved the creation of an Access to Justice Department within the Judiciary. The plight of pro se litigants was a top priority for the Access to Justice Department. “Providing information to as many people as effectively as we can is really important,” says Judge Barbera.
Despite stepped up efforts to serve self-represented litigants, “I don’t think t here’s a person who would challenge the notion that justice is best served when an individual has representation,” says Barbera, who lauded the pro bono efforts of MSBA and its members as “a wonderful thing.”
Barbera also stressed the perennial importance of civility to the legal profession. Be it through interactions between attorneys and liti-gants, or judges and the lawyers who appear before them, such “crucially important” matters of “courtesy, professionalism, and preparedness” are a “two- way street,” requiring effort at all levels.
Chief Judge Barbera regarded her post on the bench as reflecting a career- long dedication to public service that began nearly four decades ago with her “wonderful, life-informing experience” as a teacher. She credits her parents for instilling in her the notion that “helping others who are less fortunate or who have unmet needs” is not only a civic responsibility, but a very human one as well. To be sure, despite the ever-changing dynamics of both the Maryland Judiciary and the modern practice of law, Barbera continued throughout her tenure to “spend as much time as I reasonably can talking with people and learning and listening. . . . Listening is probably the most important thing to do.”
CELEBRATING A HISTORIC CAREER
Judge Barbera, who retired from the bench in September 2021, noted that some of her biggest challenges arose from decisions she had to make as the administrative head of the state judiciary. “We always, always want to take the good and make it better.”
The challenges that arose because of COVID were among the most difficult that Judge Barbera had to handle as chief judge. In a discussion with MSBA President M. Natalie McSherry, Judge Barbera recognized the importance of technology, which helped the judiciary manage and navigate the pandemic, but emphasized that ultimately, it was human effort that kept the courts operating. Noting that the courts never shut down, not even at the beginning of the pandemic, Judge Barbera cred-ited the “coterie of people” who helped her with the administrative orders required to keep the courts running while prioritizing the safety and health of all involved. “It ends with the people and the good will of the people who make up the judicial branch of our government.”
Reflecting on her career, Judge Barbera noted that much work remains toward achieving access to justice; “even with our best efforts we’ve only been able to solve 20% of the folks who really need us. There’s nothing better than a lawyer standing right by your side.”