Suzanne K. Mensh, who served Baltimore County for nearly five decades as an Orphans' Court judge and then as clerk of the county Circuit Court, died Wednesday at Northwest Hospital.
Her family said no cause of death was given. She was 82.
"She was a sincere lady," said a son, Spencer Mensh of Reisterstown. "The first word that comes to mind with her is 'integrity.'"
Judge Mensh was encouraged to run for office by members of a local Democratic club who worked with her at polling locations, her son said. She had a magnetic personality that drew in voters, he said.
"People noticed her," he said. "She was really good at what she was doing at the polling place."
She was elected in 1962 as an associate judge for the Orphans' Court, which oversees disputes about wills and estates and the management of property left to minors. Four years later, she became the court's chief judge.
Winning re-election every four years, she served five terms as chief judge, until 1986.
"She really took great pains to make the right decisions for everybody's benefit," said her son. "She would have family members coming in [to her courtroom] with bitterness and anger, and they would leave feeling very different."
Suzanne Cooper was born in Atlantic City, N.J., one of four children. Her family moved to Maryland when she was a child, her son said, and she resided in Baltimore and its suburbs for the rest of her life.
She graduated from Forest Park High School and took continuing education classes in law at the University of Baltimore but did not earn a college degree.
In 1986, Judge Mensh was elected clerk of the Baltimore County Circuit Court. It was a position she held for six terms, until 2010.
Judge Mensh swore in every county executive and County Council member elected during that period, and by the time she left office she was overseeing a staff of about 125 people.
"She ran and she ran, and she never looked back," said Mr. Mensh, who described his mother as a formidable opponent.
Over the years, Judge Mensh faced some tough political battles. In 2002, she was accused by an opponent of being hostile to unions. She fought back, as she had in other campaigns, laying out her employment practices and history of gathering feedback from her staff.
"There's a delicate balance between making sure your employees know that you care about them and letting them know they can't abuse the system," Judge Mensh told The Baltimore Sun during that campaign.
Donna Mensh said she bonded with her mother-in-law on the campaign trail and was impressed by Judge Mensh's limitless energy — she said the judge often worked 18 hours or more in a day — and by her ability to connect with constituents across Baltimore County.
On one occasion, Donna Mensh recalled, Judge Mensh stopped her campaign for half a day to spend time with an employee of the clerk's office who had fallen ill and was in the hospital.
"That really touched me in a very special way," Donna Mensh said. "She really was a straight arrow. She never compromised herself."
A longtime Pikesville resident, Judge Mensh declined to endorse her local councilman, Kevin Kamenetz, for county executive in 2010. Instead, she supported County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder for the job and made a point of introducing him to community leaders in the area.
In February 2010, she announced her plan to retire several months before the end of her sixth term as clerk.
A few weeks later, she claimed that she was being pushed out of office and wanted to stay on the job. But by that time, candidates were being interviewed to serve the remaining six months of her term and the chief administrative judge said she could not go back on her plan to retire. Mensh agreed to leave office at the end of May.
She ran again in September's Democratic primary, beating out the interim appointee but losing to Julie L. Ensor, another woman who served two decades as a judge on the Orphans' Court and who took the bench in 1986, the same year Mensh became clerk.
"Many people would say that I followed in her footsteps," said Judge Ensor, who won the general election and is now serving as clerk. "She paved the way … for women, in these courthouse positions."
"She certainly was a very dedicated public servant for Baltimore County," she said. "I always saw her as a mentor. … She was very gracious."
Judge Mensh's first marriage, to David Mensh, a department store merchandise manager, ended in divorce. She married photographer Saul Brown in 1985. He died in 2002.
Services will be held 9 a.m. Monday at Sol Levinson and Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville.
In addition to her son, survivors include another son, Paul Mensh of Australia; a sister, Roberta Lerner of Bethesda; and two grandchildren.