New Harford judge Diane Adkins-Tobin doesn't forget where she started, value of a hard day's work

In her quest to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer, then a judge, Diane Adkins-Tobin has never forgotten where she came from.

She said she and her sisters were raised by parents who got up every day and went to work, did their jobs and took care of their family. And she came to find the smartest person in the room wasn’t always the one with the most education.


“I learned to treat every single person with decency, kindness and respect, no matter what their position or what their job,” Adkins-Tobin said Friday evening as she was formally sworn in as a judge on the Harford County Circuit Court. “I was raised to be respectful of everyone. I was raised to work hard and that is what I will give the people of Harford County. I look forward to serving you, the people of Harford County.”

Since her informal swearing-in back in December, Adkins-Tobin has been sitting with Circuit Court Judge M. Elizabeth Bowen, learning the ropes of the court.

Adkins-Tobin, 60, spent 18 years as an assistant state’s attorney for Harford County and applied to be a judge — at the circuit and district level — five times, passed over each time.

With two sitting judges running, Adkins-Tobin saw it as her chance and the voters agreed.

Diane Adkins-Tobin did what no one has been able to do since 1954 — unseat a sitting judge. Not only did the deputy state’s attorney for Harford County defeat one of the two incumbent Harford County Circuit Court judges, she received more votes than either one of them.

Adkins-Tobin won the Democratic primary, which put her on the ballot in the general election with two incumbent judges — Lawrence Kreis and Paul Ishak.

In the November general election, Adkins-Tobin received more votes than either incumbent — 51,020 or 32.19 percent — to become the first person to unseat a sitting judge since 1954. Ishak was second with 47,173 votes, 29.77 percent; then Kreis with 36,275 votes, 22.89 percent; and Thomas Ashwell, 23,307 votes, 14.71 percent.

Like Adkins-Tobin learned from her parents, so, too, are Adkins-Tobin’s children learning from her to follow their dreams and that regardless of what she was told, she could succeed if she persisted and followed her dream.

As a young millennial woman, Julia Tobin, Adkins-Tobin’s 23-year-old daughter, has seen women run for president, local and national office and do lots of other things.


This election, however, means more to her than any others.

“Because a woman, a woman who raised me into the woman I am today, won something she’s been working for years to achieve,” Julia said.

She recited the opening lines of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” poetry, she said:

“If you had; One shot; Or one opportunity; To seize everything you ever wanted; In one moment; Would you capture it; Or just let it slip?”

Julia watched her mother work tirelessly day in and day out to win the election while working full-time, helping her with final exams and putting a serial rapist in jail, and “wondering if it’s all worth it.”

“Absolutely,” Julia proclaimed. “I got to see my mother work hard, never give up on her dream and achieve her goal.”


She reminded the audience that women in the world are persisting.

“To persist means to fight for something you want despite how impossible it is to obtain, because, nevertheless, she persisted,” Julia said.

Adkin-Tobin’s son, Joseph, 25, said he and his mother are similar. They have both achieved their childhood dreams — Adkins-Tobin as a judge and Joseph as a professional wrestler by the name Joe Keys.

“People don’t do that. People don’t fulfill their dreams. That’s where our parallels start,” Joseph said.

He recalled talking to his mom about her dreams of becoming a lawyer and a judge and she said it started when she was a child.

“And people told you you can’t because you’re a girl,” he said.

Then she graduated college and law school and walked into a conference room where she was told no, only lawyers were allowed in, not clerks.

“You said ‘But I am a lawyer’ and you were told ‘No you’re not, you’re a woman. Out,’” Joseph said.

“I’ve seen a woman who I consider empowering, I’ve seen a woman nearly defeated, broken, time and time again apply for a position and you were told no, you can’t do this. That didn’t stop you,” Joseph said. “You, Diane, Mom, you’re a testament not just to me, not just to Julia, but to everybody in this room that if you have a dream, you can do it. And to anybody that tells you no, you can’t do it for whatever reason comes to mind, they can shove it. And that’s why we’re here today. Congratulations Mom, you’ve earned it.”

Her story

Adkins-Tobin’s personal story defines who she is, she said during her investiture.

Her mother, Veronica, is the daughter of immigrants from Slovakia, which they left in the 1920s for America.

“[My grandfather] had the foresight to recognize the wars in Europe weren’t over and they wanted to live in America. To them, it was, and still is, a land of opportunity,” Adkins-Tobin said. “I often thought about the courage to leave their homes and travel across the ocean to a land that was completely foreign. I hope they see what their courage provided me, their granddaughter.”

Adkins-Tobin’s father went to college for a year then went to work to pay for a second year of school, but he was drafted and never went back. He moved to Erie, Pa., and worked in the GE locomotive plan his entire life.

Her mother was offered a college scholarship, but declined because she believed at the time girls didn’t go to college, they went to work. She got a secretarial job.

Both her parents worked hard so Adkins-Tobin and her sisters could get an education, and each went to college or business school, she said.

“I knew from a young age I wanted to be a lawyer. My parents always encouraged me to pursue it,” Adkins-Tobin said.

They helped financially when possible, but paying for law school was up to Adkins-Tobin, who worked part time through college and law school.

“Growing up in a blue collar neighborhood was a great education for me,” she said. “We were taught by [my parents] example the value of putting in an honest day’s work.”

Her colleagues can attest

Former Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly, who did not seek re-election last year after serving 32 years in the position, said Adkins-Tobin is ideally suited for the role of judge.

He watched as she applied to fill judicial vacancies and was rejected.

“But those who encouraged and supported Diane Adkins-Tobin had done so through the judicial appointments processes of several years because we believed that her knowledge, experience and temperament made her very qualified, and she believed in herself,” Cassilly said. “Her election proved the wisdom who wrote the MD constitution that provide that voters had the opportunity to choose a unique and special person to serve in this important position.”


As her boss for 18 years, Cassilly watched Adkins-Tobin mentor young assistant state’s attorneys and work on difficult cases.

“I know of no one better prepared by experience to be a trial judge in this county,” Cassilly said. “Judge, when I look at you and address you as judge, I still smile.”

Adkins-Tobin’s longtime friend in the state’s attorney’s office, Diana Brooks, who retired last year after 31 years in the office, worked with Adkins-Tobin for nearly 20 years and hired her part-time in 2000.

Brooks spoke of Adkins-Tobin’s work in the Child Advocacy Center, which handles cases of child abuse and child pornography, “the most difficult cases to handle.”

It takes a person with a certain personality to be able to handle children as witnesses, Brooks said, and Adkins-Tobin has that.

“She was able to work with children throughout the years, to get them prepared for trial, to testify in the presence of their abuser, that’s a testament to the kind of person she is,” Brooks said.

She has the determination and the dedication to be a judge.

“I’ve always thought when you get to this point to have wonderful folks sitting up there in black robes, they should be head and shoulders above the rest,” Brooks said. “They are the ones with the character and temperament Diane has.”

She quoted Yogi Bear, who always said he was better than the average bear.

“Diane is better than the average bear. She deserves it,” Brooks said. “Diane, you will be a fantastic judge.”