"Studies show that if you have one woman in isolation that her influence is quite limited, because she's just a token," said researcher Joan Williams, a law professor who has specialized in gender and employment for 20 years and currently works at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law. "The important point is that we're not there anymore."

In 1989, Maryland's legal community launched a commission to study gender bias in court rulings, law school educations, and judicial appointments. It found only one woman on an appellate court, and 19 Maryland counties with no female judges at all. When the Select Commission on Gender Equality issued its second report in 2001, it found that between 1989 and 2001, women went from 9 percent of Maryland judges to 23 percent.

Bell, then the chief judge, wrote that despite the progress, "We have yet more to do." The report found no women serving on district or circuit courts in 14 Maryland counties.

"For everyone in the legal system, to see a judiciary or a professional staff that looks like their community, I think that emphasizes trust and confidence that they are going to get a fair shake," said retired Montgomery County administrative judge Ann Harrington, who chaired the commission in 2001. "Our past four administrations have been very focused on making sure that our appointments reflect our community. … There were a lot of minorities appointed, a lot of women appointed, and the sky didn't fall. Everyone did well."

Nancy A. Sachitano, president of the Women's Bar Association of Maryland, called the appointments of a majority of women to the state's highest court "only significant in the fact that it has not happened before."

In late April, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg remarked at a conference about women on the Supreme Court: "Sometimes I'm asked the question 'When will there be enough?' and I say, 'Well, when there are nine.' For most of the country's existence, there were nine of the same sex and they were all men, and nobody thought that that was out of order."

Could the same be said of Maryland's Court of Appeals? "That will probably be a question for the next governor to answer," O'Malley said.

ecox@baltimoresun.com

Mary Ellen Barbera

Age: 61

New job: Chief judge of the Court of Appeals

Home district: Montgomery County

Experience: Judge, Court of Appeals and Court of Special Appeals; assistant attorney general; legal counsel to former Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Taught in Baltimore City schools from 1975-1984.

Law degree: University of Maryland School of Law, 1984.

Shirley M. Watts

Age: 54

New job: Judge, Court of Appeals

Home district: Baltimore City

Experience: Judge, Court of Special Appeals and Baltimore City Circuit Court; assistant state's attorney in Baltimore; assistant federal public defender; federal administrative law judge and chief administrative law judge for the Social Security Administration.

Law degree: Rutgers University School of Law, 1983.