New Court of Appeals judges

Governor Martin O'Malley, center, named Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, left, as Chief Judge of the Court Of Appeals. He also named Judge Shirley Watts, right, to the Court of Appeals. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / July 3, 2013)

Maryland achieved several milestones Tuesday as Gov. Martin O'Malley named the first woman to lead what will be the first female majority on the state's top court.

The appointments, announced Wednesday in Annapolis, mark a shift in a male-dominated profession and put Maryland among a minority of states with their highest courts led by women.

"In every generation we make progress toward the sort of country we want our kids to grow up in," O'Malley said.

O'Malley elevated Court of Appeals Judge Mary Ellen Barbera to be chief — the highest-ranking judge in Maryland — and he appointed Court of Special Appeals Judge Shirley M. Watts to take the seat of retiring Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.

If confirmed by the Senate, Watts would be the fourth woman on the seven-member court — the first time women would hold a majority in the court's more than two-century history. Watts also is the first African-American woman to be appointed to the court.

Legal observers say the expanding role of women in Maryland courts represent the culmination of a trend that began 40 years ago when female enrollment in law schools spiked.

"We've made some historic strides, but really that's attributable to the women in the legal profession here in Maryland who have demonstrated such outstanding skills in the courtroom and as lawyers and judges," said O'Malley, whose wife, Catherine Curran O'Malley, is a Baltimore district judge.

The appointments come at a time when most American power centers, including courts, are still dominated by men. Nationally, only 36 percent of judges in top courts are women. State legislatures are 24 percent women. Corporate board rooms: 15 percent women.

Only eleven other states have a majority of female judges on their top courts, and 19 have women as the chief judge, according to data compiled by the National Center for State Courts.

"Hopefully it will become the norm," said Joan Churchill, president of the National Association of Women Judges and a retired U.S. immigration judge who lives in Montgomery County.

Barbera and Watts are "just great, great appointments," Bell said Tuesday. Bell is required by law to retire from the Court of Appeals when he turns 70 on Saturday.

Barbera, 61, was appointed to the Court of Appeals in 2008 after jobs as an assistant attorney general, as legal counsel to Gov. Parris N. Glendening and a Court of Special Appeals judge. Watts, 54, was appointed to the Court of Special Appeals in 2011, following nine years as a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge and stints as an assistant state's attorney and federal public defender.

Neither judge agreed to be interviewed in advance of the announcement.

More than three-fourths of the women on top courts across the country were appointed since 2000.

"That's the progress that's been made: Enough women have had the opportunity to prove themselves," said Sheila K. Sachs, a Baltimore attorney who is chair of the judicial nominating commission. That panel recommended Watts along with four other candidates — three of whom were men — to represent the Baltimore area, a position Bell has held since 1991.

"I graduated law school when no woman had been hired by a major law firm in Baltimore," said Sachs, who earned her law degree from the University of Maryland in 1964. "Decades afterward, they [women] began to come out of law school in greater numbers, they proved themselves, and now you're seeing the result of that. … It's all a recent phenomenon. Thank God, it's happening."

When Barbera graduated from law school in 1984 and when Watts graduated in 1983, roughly 40 percent of law students were women — up from 23 percent a decade earlier, according to data complied by the American Bar Association.

Baltimore attorney M. Natalie McSherry, one of the finalists to replace Bell, called the majority female court "inevitable, I would like to think.

"It obviously has some historical significance, every first does, but I'd like to think that we're past that," McSherry said, "It shouldn't be a question of how many men and how many women. It should be a question of who is the best qualified. When will there be enough [women]? When we stop talking about it."

In 1979 Judge Rita Davidson was the first woman appointed to the state's top court. Davidson's five-year tenure ended nine years before the next woman, Judge Irma Raker ,was appointed. Raker served nine years before a second woman, Judge Lynne A. Battaglia, was appointed to join her on the court in 2002.