Risselle "Rikki" Fleisher, a former general counsel to the Maryland Commission on Human Relations who was a legal advocate in civil rights cases, died Tuesday of breast cancer at Stella Maris Hospice. The Bethany Beach, Del., resident was 77.
"She wanted to right any wrong," said former Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. "She was a caring person who grew up at a time when things were happening that never should have. She worked to change that."
Born Risselle Rosenthal in Baltimore and raised on Mohawk Avenue, she was a 1953 graduate of Forest Park High School, where she was a three-letter athlete, her yearbook's features editor and homeroom class president.
She studied for a year at the University of Pennsylvania but was forced to leave when her parents divorced. She then became a medical secretary and studied evenings at the Johns Hopkins University. She spent the summer of 1958 studying poetry with Robert Lowell and Alan Tate at Harvard University. She later received a bachelor's degree in English at Hopkins and also earned a master's degree there.
In 1959, she joined the Congress of Racial Equality and in 1960 was its local co-chair with Walter P. Carter.
In 1962, she married concert pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher. They lived in Bolton Hill. She joined the Mount Royal Democratic Club and in 1969 became a founding member of the New Democratic Club of Baltimore. She was a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Friends recalled that she temporarily switched her party affiliation to support a Republican, Harry Cole, the first African-American elected to the Maryland Senate.
"She was the most liberal person I've ever encountered in the field of civil rights," said former state Sen. Julian L. "Jack" Lapides, who hired her as an aide in 1966. "She was a very liberal Democrat for all the right causes. She was passionate on civil rights of every kind. She made 'liberal' a positive word. She was rigid and determined in every aspect of the civil rights movement."
In a sketch of her career, Ms. Fleisher once wrote, "I entered the University of Maryland School of Law at the age of 37 as a full-time day student, half a year after separating from my husband and assuming full-time parenting responsibilities for my children. ... Balancing the rigors of law school against a difficult time in my life did not provide a context for being a star student."
She was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1975 and worked initially for Rep. Parren J. Mitchell before becoming an assistant counsel to the state's Human Relations Commission. From 1978 to 1988, she was the panel's general counsel.
In a 1994 letter, Robert A. Zarnoch, now a judge on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, wrote of her service to the commission.
"Before she arrived in the General Counsel's office, the Human Relations Commission had suffered a disastrous string of losses in the Court of Appeals," Judge Zarnoch said. "Rikki turned that record around so that during her tenure her clients won the great majority of their appeals — some of which are landmark decisions in the areas of anti-discrimination law and administrative practice."
She later became a Maryland assistant attorney general and represented the Motor Vehicle Administration.
Ms. Fleisher worked on thorny cases. She argued that an insurance company discriminated on issues of gender. She also fought for four women who filed a claim against the Maryland Transit Administration, alleging that they were denied employment because they were overweight. She also litigated against a car dealer who was advertising new vehicles for sale that had been previously rented.
In the 1980s, she fought discrimination against people with HIV and against a state tax break given to an all-male country club.
Judge Zarnoch described her as "vibrant, with a strong personality," and loyal to friends and to her children.
"She was a great dinner companion," he said. "She liked Italian food and trips to Italy."
She was a member of the Beth Am Synagogue and also belonged to religious and Jewish literature study groups.
Services will be held at 3 p.m. Thursday at Sol Levinson and Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road.
Survivors include a son, Julian Ross Fleisher of New York City; a daughter, Paula Beth Fleisher of San Francisco; and a grandson. Her marriage ended in divorce in 1975.