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.