Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Diana Motz joins federal bench today


Working late one evening last October, her secretary already gone, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz picked up the phone when it rang in her chambers at the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

It was White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, asking if she would consider an appointment to the federal appellate court.

Perhaps he was looking for her husband, she gently suggested. J. Frederick Motz, a Reagan appointee to Maryland's federal bench, was considered by many, including his wife, to be an obvious choice for an appellate seat.

"He'd be great," was Mr. Nussbaum's reply. "George Bush should have appointed him."

As Diana Motz recently joked, she is two things her husband will never be: a woman and a Democrat.

And at a swearing-in ceremony in Baltimore this afternoon, Fred Motz will proudly hold a Bible as Diana Motz, 51, takes the judicial oath, becoming the first woman from Maryland named to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Throughout her 26 years in law, opportunities have found Judge Motz, whether she was looking for them or not.

"She just has that kind of ability and personality that is naturally going to attract decision-makers," said Alan M. Wilner, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

"She's got brains, a heart, a sense of humor, and she loves the law," says Stephen Sachs, with whom Diana Motz worked closely when he was Maryland attorney general.

As Judge Motz tells it, she became a lawyer because she was uncertain what else to do. Reared in Washington, the daughter of renowned litigator Daniel J. Gribbon, she applied to law school late, and only after her plans to go into advertising hit a snag.

She abandoned her application with the J. Walter Thompson agency in New York when she learned she would have to sketch a picture to accompany her copy-writing sample. She was no artist.

On entering the University of Virginia Law School in 1965, she became one of only two women in her class. Until then, she had attended girls' schools all her life. But the adjustment was no problem.

"After Vassar, where there were all these very ambitious, very outspoken women, this was a piece of cake," she said. "These were laid-back, Southern gentlemen."

At each turn in her career, she has discovered niches that suited her. On graduation, she took the only job available at Piper & Marbury, in tax law, and found she loved it.

Later she went into litigation, eventually becoming chief of that department for the Maryland attorney general.

It seemed a logical move for someone who grew up watching her father scrawl page after page of notes in preparation for trials. "I thought that's what lawyers did," she says.

Her husband, whom she met in law school, remains her most unabashed admirer. He ticks off the qualities he believes make Diana Motz a fine judge -- she's bright, open-minded, listens well, writes clearly, and has a good sense of people -- a list echoed by many others.

"She brings real style and elegance to what she does, but she's no pushover," he concludes.

Indeed. Among the few embellishments in her new office is the $268,482 check that Spiro T. Agnew wrote after she successfully represented the state to recover bribe money he had accepted as governor.

During the trial, she argued that because Mr. Agnew's just-published book described conversations with his lawyer, the discussions were no longer protected by attorney-client privilege.

The judge agreed. So she called to the stand Mr. Agnew's lawyer, who testified that Mr. Agnew had confided in him about accepting the bribes.

She was appointed as an associate judge to the state's Court of Special Appeals in 1991, work that suited her reflective nature.

Trying cases had wired her with excitement, she said. "But you really have to have the stomach for it. During a trial, I can't eat, I can't sleep."

Despite her zest for her work, it has always been second to family considerations, friends say.

Twice she shifted her career into low gear after the births of her children. Catherine, now 23, is with the Teach for America program in the South Bronx; Daniel, 18, is a senior at the Friends School. A gregarious woman whose eyes frequently crinkle with laughter, Judge Motz insists that she returned to lawyering early only because baby Daniel refused to sleep.

"I went back to work to get some rest," she says.

In truth, she mastered a delicate balancing act, says Lila Lohr, a friend of 23 years.

"She knew being a lawyer, being a woman and working part time was the kiss of death," said Ms. Lohr, headmistress at St. Paul's School for Girls. "But she's absolutely devoted to Fred and her two kids. The four are unusually close."

As for her work: "She will talk at length about issues she's concerned about in a case. This is nothing casual -- these are things she really cares about, and that's the way she is in the rest of her life."

Besides all that, she adds, Diana Motz makes the best chocolate souffle in town.

One might assume that the Judges Motz consult each other frequently about their cases. But, when her husband recently sentenced fugitive financier Tom J. Billman to 40 years in prison, she learned the news on the car radio.

To her new job, she hopes to bring "some common sense," she says. She regards being a trial lawyer the toughest job in law, and the work of trial judges a close second.

"I think some appellate judges forget that," she said.

She does not intend to.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad