Barbara Mello, who taught constitutional law and defended people's rights under it as attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, died of lung cancer complications Saturday at her Owings Mills home. She was 71.
Ms. Mello was the first salaried staff attorney hired by the state ACLU chapter, and taught for more than two decades at the University of Baltimore's School of Law, where she had graduated first in her class in 1976 after a midlife career change.
"She was a perfect civil libertarian in that she had strong beliefs, but she was also witty, sardonic, skeptical, and irreverent, even about civil liberties matters," said John Roemer, a Park School teacher and former executive director of the ACLU, who hired her there in 1976.
"She was extremely pragmatic," he said. "She was never the captive of any ideology. She cast a skeptical eye on the claims of the right and the claims of the left. She didn't like fanatics of any stripe. She was tough and fair-minded."
Born Barbara Bectol in Garrett, Ind., Ms. Mello recalled that as a young woman she grew concerned about racial injustice and discrimination as she read about the 1950s civil rights movement, the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up a bus seat to a white person and the Birmingham bus boycott.
Ms. Mello earned a degree in education from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., but wanted to become a lawyer. She said that in the mid-1950s, law school was not an option that women were encouraged to pursue.
She worked in public relations and edited textbooks in the Boston area before moving to the Annapolis in 1968. She moved to Baltimore several years later, where she enrolled in the law school. She joined its faculty three years later after working as a law clerk for the late Baltimore attorney Harold Buchman, who often handled cases involving civil liberties.
"She was a warm person who felt for people, but she wasn't strident," said Andrew Radding, a lawyer and former federal prosecutor who was also a University of Baltimore faculty member. "She was very practical in her beliefs and how to effectuate those beliefs. She also had a very nice teaching style. She was constantly striving to do new things and make her classes interesting. As a result, her classes were well-populated."
In addition to teaching constitutional law, she was director of UB's law clinics, the instructional program in which students try cases and represent clients under the supervision of a licensed member of the bar.
"To her credit, she developed the clinical program at the school in its early stages," said the school's former dean, Laurence M. Katz. "She was part of a national movement to help students put into practical use what they'd learned in the classroom."
Ms. Mello retired from the university in 2000.
An ACLU staff attorney for nearly a decade, Ms. Mello's cases dealt with such issues as religious and academic freedom, obscenity, abortion, and questions of school punishment.
In 1982, she took on the Harford County public school system when its administrators were considering banning a student theatrical production of Inherit the Wind, based on the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial" over the teaching of evolution.
"What in the world are we sending them to school for if not to let them be exposed to a serious dramatic work on a period of American history that still has contemporary value and meaning," she told The Sun at the time.
In 1982, she defended a Hagerstown woman who wanted to have an abortion that was being legally contested by her husband, who argued that Maryland's Equal Rights Amendment gives a father a voice in deciding the fate of an unborn child. The woman was ultimately successful in having the abortion - before a final resolution of the case in her favor.
Ms. Mello also defended Robert M. "Bobby" Berger, a white Baltimore police officer who was barred by the department from performing an Al Jolson impersonation in black-face makeup.
In a 1985 decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., found in Mr. Berger's favor, saying that his performances were entitled to the protection of the First Amendment and that the Police Department could not claim any overriding public interest in ordering him to stop.
Ms. Mello also defended Susan J. Avery, an Aberdeen exotic dancer accused of violating an obscenity law. The trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict.
"Anytime there is a controversy that affects any community, the more discussion of it there is, the better," Ms. Mello said in a 1992 interview.
In her free time, Ms. Mello took courses in painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
A memorial service will be held at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow at the University of Baltimore Moot Courtroom, 1420 N. Charles St.
Survivors include two daughters, Rachel Elizabeth Mello of Somerville, Mass., and Sarah Dean Mello of Seattle; a sister, Patricia Kelly of Huron, Ohio; and a grandson. Her marriage to David Mello ended in divorce.