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From drug court to disaster relief


The two met at a dinner in Jerusalem, of all places, but Ellen M. Heller wasn't about to let an opportunity pass her by.

There was Robert Carmona, president of an innovative Harlem, N.Y.-based job training program called Strive. Like Heller, he had traveled to Jerusalem to help the Israeli government set up an employment initiative.

"I said to him, 'You know, I have another hat that I wear,'" Heller said.

Actually, it's a robe. Although she retired in 2003 after 17 years as a Baltimore circuit judge, Heller continues to preside over the felony drug court that she developed. And she packs the rest of her time with an array of good Samaritan activities - from traveling to Sri Lanka on a tsunami relief mission last month to regularly participating in a Girl Scout troop for imprisoned mothers and their daughters.

Many times Heller's projects intertwine, with one benefiting another.

"One of the great things about Judge Heller is that whatever she is doing, if she sees an opportunity to assist someone, she does not hesitate," says Judge Marcella A. Holland, administrative judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court. "She has the ability to listen carefully and always be on the lookout for ways people can partner to make things better. That's how we got Strive."

At that dinner in Jerusalem, a little more than a year ago, Heller knew right away that the drug-addicted and often jobless defendants appearing before her in drug court could benefit from something like Strive, so she asked Carmona to fly to Baltimore to help set up a similar program in the city. He did.

On a recent morning in Heller's golden-lit fourth-floor courtroom, drug court participants greet each other, lawyers and social workers with hearty handshakes. It's not a typical courtroom atmosphere, and Heller, sitting on the bench and telling person after person about how proud she is, is not filling a typical judicial role. She sounds more like a teacher.

"This is an excellent report," she tells one woman after reading about her steady job and clean urinalysis results. "I don't often say this adjective, but the word is, 'outstanding.'"

She asks many of them about their experience with Strive and smiles upon hearing that it has helped them feel more confident and improved their social skills.

It's not all good news for the felony drug diversion program's 120 or so participants, most of whom check in monthly with Heller. Some have new arrests, and some have tested positive for drug use. Still, Heller tries to strike an optimistic tone: "Good luck with your new charges," she tells one man.

The judge later remarks about how hard it is to beat a drug addiction, calling it "a plague of our times." But she says she feels confident the drug court is changing people.

"It's wonderful to see people who would otherwise be serving time regain their lives," she says in an interview. "The program is so much better than prison, and it's so less costly."

The drug court participants have been chosen because they fit several criteria, such as being severely drug-addicted, having a nonviolent background and wanting to stay clean.

Paid for largely with federal grant money, the drug court began in 2003 just as Heller was retiring from the bench. With the grant money waning, it's not clear how much longer it will last.

Kristen Mahoney, the Baltimore Police Department's chief of technical services, who helped find grant money for Heller's drug court, says the judge "does not view the criminal justice system only from the perspective of the bench."

"She accepts no excuses, allows no finger pointing," Mahoney says. "She is constantly asking, 'Why not?' as she works with agencies and individuals to problem-solve to improve systems and processes."

Heller, 64, was born and raised in East Baltimore, the daughter of a Johns Hopkins Hospital doctor. At 19, she married Richard H. Heller, a medical student who would become a genetics expert at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. She dropped out of college and raised two sons.

She later received her undergraduate degree from Hopkins and, at 33, became a full-time student at the University of Maryland Law School. She says her work as a community activist in Northwest Baltimore persuaded her to study the law.

Heller became an assistant attorney general in the Maryland attorney general's office, becoming principal counsel to the Maryland Department of Education. In 1982, during a jog, Richard Heller died suddenly.

"I often think, 'Where would I be if I had not gone to law school?" Heller says. "You never know where life will take you, and that's why education is so important."

Heller remarried fellow attorney Shale D. Stiller, who is president of the Owings Mills-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

Gov. Harry R. Hughes appointed Heller to the Baltimore Circuit Court bench in 1986. She became the first female administrative judge in Maryland in 1999.

As a judge, she spearheaded an effort to build a new Baltimore courthouse, which continues under the direction of Holland, who replaced Heller as administrative judge. Heller sat on the state's rules committee, a judicial policymaking panel. And she was involved in social projects such as the Girl Scouts in prison troop and Tamar's Children, a program that aids pregnant women who are behind bars.

Although she retired a little more than two years ago, Heller says she is still involved in many of her activities - and she has taken on what could be her biggest project yet.

In December 2004 she was elected president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The 92-year-old international aid foundation based in New York is similar, Heller says, to Catholic Relief Services in that it provides global disaster relief and is not political.

Heller takes a train to New York about once a week and is constantly sifting through a mountain of papers in her home office in North Baltimore. She travels extensively, having returned last month from a trip to Indonesia and Sri Lanka to check on JDC's tsunami relief and rebuilding efforts there.

More travel is to come. She flies to Jerusalem several times a year and has been all over Africa and Asia, setting up JDC projects.

Holland says Heller has little time for the bench now because of her active schedule. "But I don't begrudge her that - she's doing wonderful work," she says.

And Mahoney sums up Heller's achievements this way: "If everyone could inject a little bit of Ellen Heller in their lives, we would all be better people."


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