Judge Elsbeth Bothe in her chambers in 1994.

Judge Elsbeth Bothe in her chambers in 1994. (MARK BUGNASKI, Baltimore Sun / February 17, 1994)

Judge Elsbeth Levy Bothe, a well-known former criminal defense attorney who served on the Baltimore Circuit Court for nearly two decades and had a taste for the macabre, died Wednesday at her Homeland residence of complications from a stroke she had suffered three weeks earlier. Judge Bothe was 85.

"Elsbeth was always there for justice. She was fair, just, but could be very tough," said Ellen A. Callegary, who clerked for Judge Bothe in 1976 and was a founding partner of the Baltimore law firm of Callegary & Steedman.

"Even though she had strong feelings, she always supported juries. And she could be tough with lawyers," said Ms. Callegary. "She wanted them to come to court prepared and did not want to hear excuses. She respected both sides and respected them when they did their jobs well, and [was] tough when they didn't."

Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein clerked for Judge Bothe in 1981.

"Elsbeth was, at the end of the day, a force. She was brilliant, witty — wickedly witty — generous to a fault and an extremely entertaining individual," recalled Mr. Bernstein.

"She was the quintessential raconteur, if a woman can be one," he said. "You always needed to pay attention when you were with her because you never knew what she was going to say. Tossing out bon mots was a great part of her character."

"She was a great Baltimore character and as a woman was a trailblazer. And she did not suffer fools," said John Waters, the Baltimore filmmaker who had been a close friend for more than 40 years. "Whenever I have a party, my New York friends always ask, 'Is that judge gonna be there?'"

The daughter of Milford Levy, a neuropsychologist, and Elsa Kraus Levy, a social worker, Elsbeth Levy was born into Baltimore's German-Jewish elite and was a descendant of the Hutzler and Hamburger retailing families.

Raised in Pikesville, she was a graduate of the Park School. Before she turned 17, she enrolled at the University of Chicago, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1947.

She was working in an uninteresting research job when one day, tired of listening to the office Muzak, she cut a wire to turn it off and was promptly fired.

She decided to enter law school at the University of Maryland, where at the time she was among just a handful of women studying law. They had to endure taunts that the only reason they were there was to find husbands, reported The Baltimore Sun in a profile.

Judge Bothe graduated from the law school in 1952 and was admitted to the Maryland Bar that year. She practiced labor law and met her future husband, Berthold William Bothe, a regional director for the United Auto Workers, whom she married in 1965.

He died in 1985.

She was a lifelong liberal and advocate for minorities. During the summer of 1963, she represented hundreds who were arrested at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park as they challenged its "whites only" admission policy.

In 1964, she traveled to Mississippi to represent civil rights activists — both black and white — who were arrested.

After returning to Baltimore, she was an assistant public defender and counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union.

When she was working as an attorney, she represented a woman who had been charged with shoplifting from Hutzler's department store. It was an iron-clad open-and-shut case, reported The Sun in 2005.

When the woman came to her office scantily clad, Judge Bothe warned her to dress properly for her court appearance before Judge Mary Arabian, who was known for her rules regarding proper dress.

Even though she was found guilty, Judge Arabian gave her probation before judgment. When Judge Bothe complimented the woman on her courtroom outfit, she replied, "Isn't this a great outfit? I lifted it from Hutzler's."

Judge Bothe, who tried capital cases both as a defense lawyer and judge, was known as one of Maryland's most outspoken opponents of capital punishment. She also served for eight years on the review board at Patuxent Institution.

"I think I've got better insight into criminals than most judges," she told The Sun in 1978. "I know these guys in a way a lot of judges don't."

In a 1976 op-ed page piece in The Baltimore Sun, she wrote, "The most conceivable justification for perpetuating the death penalty is that it will stop crime, murders in particular. The evidence is clear, however, that incidence of murder bears no relationship to the existence of the death penalty."

In 1978, Judge Bothe was appointed to the Supreme Bench — which later became the Baltimore Circuit Court — by acting Gov. Blair Lee III. When asked about her staunch advocacy against capital punishment, she told The Evening Sun at the time, "I will follow the law whether I like it or not."

At the time, she was the third woman to serve on the Supreme Bench and the sixth female judge out of 188 judges in the state.

Judge Bothe had a fascination with murders — she was known to swap with other judges to get a murder case — that began as a child, she explained in an interview with The Sun in 2008. She had jettisoned "Nancy Drew's juvenile sleuthing stories in favor of The New Yorker magazine's marvelously scripted articles called 'Annals of Crime,'" she told the newspaper.

"Even though she was extremely liberal she was not soft on crime. She was a tough judge and had a reputation as being a tough judge," said former state Sen. Julian L. "Jack" Lapides, who is also a lawyer and friend of 60 years.

"Elsbeth had a great legal mind and loved to answer questions in the deepest possible way. She did not like any surface analysis or simple answers," said Ms. Callegary. "She loved an argument and if you were an attorney, she wanted you to disagree with her. She always wanted to hear the other side and loved it when you did. It was a wonderful trait."

Mr. Bernstein said that she had "great devotion to the law."

"She always wanted her clerks to succeed and she was a real pioneer in paving the way for women attorneys who followed her. She had very strong views and did not vacillate or waver," said Mr. Bernstein.

Judge Bothe filled her home and chambers with collections of skulls — some of them human — and her enormous collection of crime books.

"When I first went to her chambers and saw those skulls, I thought it must give pause to attorneys on both sides of a case," said Mr. Waters, who first met Judge Bothe after he was arrested for filming a nude hitchhiker scene on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus for his movie, "Mondo Trasho."

"They took me to a lockup in Hampden and they told me I could make one call, so I called the ACLU here, and thank God she was on duty that day, and answered the phone," said Mr. Waters. "She got me out and agreed to take my case."

Judge Bothe's career ended in 1995 when a city trial nominating commission did not forward her name to Gov. Parris N. Glendening for reappointment, two years before the mandatory retirement age.

"It was a devastating blow to her," said Mr. Lapides.

For the last 18 years, despite health issues that required her to use a walker, Judge Bothe maintained a vigorous social schedule, traveled all over the world, attended parties and spent time with her wide circle of friends.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. March 24 at Westminster Hall, 515 W. Fayette St.

Surviving are two grandchildren, two great grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com