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Harford's 'Justice Sisters' take over the bench

Harford's 'Justice Sisters' control the bench

They call themselves the "Justice Sisters." They're the five women of Harford County's judiciary and today they're the majority.

That wasn't always the case. Before Mimi Cooper's appointment as District Court Judge in 1999, no woman had sat on Harford County's bench.

Including Cooper's appointment, five of the last six judges appointed in Harford County have been women. One is Jewish, one is African-American and one is Latina, further diversifying the bench.

They are, in order of tenure on the bench, District Court Judge Mimi Cooper, Circuit Court Judge Angela Eaves, District Court Judge Susan Hazlett and Circuit Court Judges Beth Bowen and Yolanda Curtin.

"There is a real camaraderie among the women members of the bench. And we'll joke to ourselves from time to time we're the 'Justice Sisters,'" Eaves said. "Not all of us knew each other well before coming to the bench, but have that sort of sisterhood now, it's really a unique thing. It's special."

As an assistant state's attorney in Harford County for 10 years, Curtin spent a lot of time in the ceremonial courtroom of the Harford County Courthouse. She would often stare at the portraits on the walls, all of them men except for one - Mary Risteau, a former Harford County senator for whom the state office building across Bond Street is named.

"I would think about their history, how they got there. I would also think about the lack of women and the lack of minorities," she said. "So when I took the oath and I was sitting on the bench, I looked around and thought, one day my portrait is going to be here. Who would have ever thought, in my life, the experiences I have had would lead me here and I would be part of history."

It might be a long time, and Curtin won't be here to see it (the portraits aren't hung until after a judge's death), but eventually the portraits of at least three women will adorn those walls.

Generation of change

In January 1999, the process to find a new district court judge had just begun. There was no short list yet. Until then, members of the Harford County Judiciary - circuit and district courts - had been white men.

That month, The Aegis wrote an editorial titled "Time for diversity," and suggested it was time for someone other than a white man to be appointed judge in Harford.

"Never in the county's history has a woman or a member of an ethnic or racial minority been selected by the governor to wear the black robe in either circuit or district courts," the editorial read.

It pointed out Harford's demographic makeup has changed and perhaps it was time for the judiciary to reflect that.

"Will the next judge picked in Harford County be a woman, a black man or a member of the Jewish community? Nobody can say, but it is clear the times are changing, and such changes readily apply to hidebound institutions like the Harford County bench," The Aegis opined.

That next appointment, in November, Cooper was not only the first woman appointed, but also she was the first Jewish person appointed.

And when Judge Emory A. Plitt spoke at her swearing-in, he made note of it.

"This will be one of my last appearances as a member of this court and I am honored to be able to preside at the investiture of the first woman to be a Harford County judge. Twenty years from now, someone may ask who was the bald guy who presided at Mimi Cooper's investiture. I will then be an answer to a Harford County Trivial Pursuit question."

That four of five women have been appointed in 15 years is more happenstance than by design, Eaves said.

She remembers joking when Bowen was appointed that women were almost in the majority.

"We have four out of nine, we have to go for the majority," she said. "It was really an off-hand comment, then Judge Curtin was appointed. I don't think [it was anyone's] intent to make it majority female."

Both governors have made judicial appointments across party lines.

"I anticipate Governor Hogan will be no different," Cooper said. "They're as invested in the integrity of the process as whoever the successful candidate is. They want good judges and whoever the appointment is wants to be a good judge."

Hogan's first judicial appointment will be to replace Circuit Court Judge Stephen Waldron, who's retiring July 17.

Reflection of the community

The change, they say, is a reflection of how they community they are serving is changing, and it's happened over time.

"When you look at the judiciary, if you want to have a well-balanced judiciary, it has to have the face of everybody, be representative of the people coming before the court," Curtin, who was born in Cuba, said. "We see people of all different walks of life coming before us. We can't judge based on background, but you have to be able to understand and in making a decision take everything into account."

That's particularly important in District Court, Cooper said.

"In terms of the historical nature of appointments, particularly in district court, it's the people's court. People want to feel as if their voices are being heard. To have representatives that reflect the population gives the legitimacy to the process itself," she said. "The appearance that you're not going to be treated differently because we are diverse as our population is, that's a wonderful thing."

Gender shouldn't really make a difference, Bowen said.

"I came to the bench as the fourth woman, and it was just no big deal that I happened to be a woman, that's really where we're trying to go in the community," she said. "I believe whatever your particular difference is, your ability, work ethic and commitment is what matters. I think that is what the founders of this country I think were talking about."

Gender issues may not be as prevalent today as they used to be, Bowen said.

"When I talk to my own children, it's really interesting to me how many things about this issue to them, it's hard for them to understand, because they just don't see it or experience it," she said.

Among the reasons more judges are women is because the pool from which to choose a judge has grown substantially in the last 15 years, Cooper said. More women have been to law school, more are becoming lawyers and practicing law, a requirement to be named to the bench.

But it's not just in the legal profession, she noted, more women today are doctors, engineers, astronauts – "those dreams our parents told us you can be anything you want to be," she said.

When Bowen began working in the Harford County State's Attorney's Office in 1982, she would often be the only woman at the table at various planning meetings, on a case or working on a project.

"And now on the bench, I have cases in which both attorneys are women, the police officers are women," she said. "That's how it should be."

Any time someone walks into a room where their gender, race or ethnicity is different from them, it can be a little unsettling for them, Curtin said. A more balanced room, which is being presented more and more in Harford's courts, can help them breathe a sigh of relief.

Hazlett, who had been with the Baltimore County State's Attorney's Office for 20 years before becoming the third woman appointed to the bench, was surprised there weren't any women before Cooper.

"There were women on the bench in district and circuit. It was remarkable there weren't women here," Hazlett said. "It both seems like it's taken forever, but in the scheme of things, as long as the bench has been around, it's a relatively short time. You can look at it either way."

Colleagues and friends

Some of their relationships go back years - Cooper and Hazlett went to law school together - and Bowen, Cooper and Curtin worked in the Harford County State's Attorney's Office together - while some of their friendships are new.

For Harford's newest judge, Curtin, the relationship among her peers has been helpful.

"I can let my guard down. I don't have to be on all the time. I can be emotional. It's OK in front of them," Curtin said. "It's OK to express my fears in front of them and share my family life with them, in addition to discussing whatever professional things we talk about."

While the women may have a special relationship because of their gender, they have similar relationships with their male colleagues.

For Hazlett, it's more of a generational thing than gender.

"I feel the same sense of collegiality with Judge Carey, more. We have more in common because I think we're newer to the bench," she said. "It's easier to remember what it was like to practice law. We did the work and we haven't been on the bench for 30 years. We have more in common."

When Cooper came on the bench, her peers were all men.

"They all welcomed me with open arms. I did not perceive any treatment at all, they were wonderful to me," she said. "They were there to guide me, advise me, support me. As other people have been appointed, they get the same treatment."

Mimi Cooper

Cooper is the senior female judge in Harford. After 11 years as an assistant state's attorney first in Baltimore City then in Harford County, she was appointed Nov. 8, 1999 by Gov. Parris Glendenning to replace Plitt, who was appointed to the circuit court. She was reappointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

It doesn't seem like it's been 15 years.

"Every day I get on the bench I feel like it is the first day, and my job is to represent the citizens," she said. "I'm so incredibly honored to represent the citizens; the shine has not come off at all."

Cooper, who lives in Bel Air, has had lots of mentors throughout her career, "some are women, some are men." Among them is Roslynn Bell, the second person appointed to the Appellate Court of Maryland. Bell was also a district and circuit court judge.

For Cooper, who will be 53 Thursday, being a mentor is "very, very important."

"I think it's paying it forward," she said. "We are helping to prepare our nation and our future for generations. We are important role models, not to just to little girls, but to little girls and little boys and young boys trying to figure out where they're going to go."

The pinnacle of a legal career, particularly as a trial lawyer, is to become a judge, Cooper said, adding some people might disagree.

"So for young people that are trying to decide what their career path is, to know their gender is not going to keep them from reaching one of the most honorable jobs as a lawyer, to see a woman in that role gives them hope," she said.

Working parents are important role models as well, she said.

"Men were judges and parents and now families can see that moms can be judges and parents," the mother of three said. Her children are 18, 20 and 22.

Angela Eaves

The second woman on the bench, Eaves, of Havre de Grace, was the first African-American when she was sworn in as district court judge in 2000, where she served until Dec. 28, 2007, when she was appointed to the circuit court. In January, she was named administrative judge of Harford's circuit court.

The diversity on the bench, which also includes the Cuban-born Curtin, makes a difference and reflects on the community much better, she said.

"There are people who probably still have the expectation that a judge is a man, and maybe for them, women aren't necessarily as well-suited to the job as men might be," she said. "What I think they will find is because there is greater diversity now, we all make better decisions, whether we're male for female."

Eaves, 56, is flattered by the term "role model," which she said can sound presumptuous and egotistical.

"But I realize that just like me, they're on the outside looking in. That was me years ago, in high school, college, law school, looking at these people I aspired to be, and I didn't see anyone who looked like me," she said.

When Eaves was working in the State's Attorney's Office in Dallas in the late 1980s, there was one African-American female municipal judge. That was a person she could identify with, she said.

"For me to go there and see this woman judge, who wouldn't be impressed by that? I never thought I would ever be in that position," she said.

Her message to young women, regardless of color, is that with good structure and guidance, "they can do anything they want to do," she said.

Susan Hazlett

She never set out to be a judge. She didn't know what she wanted to do, she said. What she did know, though, was that there would be no limits.

Hazlett, 53, of Baldwin, didn't want to be a prosecutor, either, but she was an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore County for 20 years, working most of that time on child sex abuse cases.

She didn't plan to be a judge, but her former husband pushed her to do it. She was appointed June 2, 2008 by O'Malley. In June 2010, she was named administrative judge of the district court.

Hazlett's children were 16 and 11 when she was appointed judge and while the hours and location of her job may have changed, she was still a working mom.

"I'm no different than any working mother. I've always worked full-time with children," she said.

As they've gotten older - they're 23 and 17 now - it's gotten easier, especially once they learned to drive. But regardless of their age, she and her husband made things work.

Gender is not something she was ever cognizant of.

"I've been blind to it, really, though I think other people see it that way," she said.

Working the child abuse cases can be difficult emotionally, but Hazlett said she's fortunate she can compartmentalize.

"I did a lot of different things that allowed me to reenergize and keep me from being burned out," Hazlett said. "I had a life. I would work, run, then I would go home and I was a mom."

Hazlett loved the cases she tried, which she called "a challenge and a chess game."

"I'm so lucky I found that area of practice," she said.

Another outlet for her was, and still is, reading. Hazlett said she goes to the Fallston library two to three times a week to drop off or pick up books. She doesn't browse like she used to, but she still reads - a lot.

At one point several years ago, the Fallston library status was uncertain - officials were threatening to close it, and Hazlett wasn't about to let that happen. She attended all the hearings about the closure, which ultimately did not happen because of the uproar of the community.

But from that experience, Hazlett said, she wanted to become part of the conversation about potential closings in the future, so she applied to be a member of the library board of trustees. Hazlett is finishing her first five-year term and will be applying in June for her second term.

Elizabeth Bowen

Appointed by O'Malley, Bowen wore her father's robe when she was sworn in Jan. 27, 2012. He was sworn in as a circuit court judge in the Seventh Judicial Circuit when she was 9 years old. He is her most significant role model in law.

While her mother was teaching, the Calvert - or as they pronounce it there, Culvert - County native followed her father around for years, in and out of the courthouse after school and in the summers, often sitting in his gallery. He was her first example of how a judge conducts himself.

"He is a very bright man, with extraordinary patience and a keen understanding of people and the human story behind each case. He is also a great storyteller, as is my mother," Bowen, 58, said. "So, an important part of my preparation for the work I do now began before I even realized it, in watching how my father spoke with the attorneys and litigants who came before him, in absorbing his respectful and genuinely appreciative approach to his staff, in realizing as I got older the gravity of the decisions he had to make."

Among her mentors when she joined the state's attorney's office in August 1982 was Diedre Lee, who had been with the agency for a few years.

"She was wonderful. She was a mother duck, she really taught me the ropes," she said. "But it was very unusual to be a trial lawyer who happened to be a woman at that time."

A Bel Air resident, Bowen replaced Joseph Cassilly, who had left the agency to run for its top position, state's attorney.

Most of her time, from 2000 to 2012, was spent as supervisor of the district court division, which allowed her to work part-time while her two children were young. There, her workday was more predictable - one docket, one day, not cases spread out over several days that sometimes requires a judge to wait on a jury's verdict well into the night.

"You really need a lot of flexibility, but some predictability to be present in your children's lives," she said.

It also helped having a husband who, when Bowen took the bench and her schedule became less predictable, made sure he was there to do the things she used to do.

"Not only did he say he'd do it, but he has done it," she said. "He's stepped up in terms of managing the schedules, school, this event or that, all those calendars in your head, he does. He's been fabulous at it.

Bowen plays another role besides mother to her two children, who are 20 and 17 - she's a grandmother to her stepdaughter's girls, who are 5 and 6. Bowen's stepdaughter died a couple years ago.

"It is a great privilege to do the work I do, but the greatest privilege and good fortune of my life is as a mother and grandmother," she said.

Yolanda Curtin

The rookie among the female judges - appointed by O'Malley, she was sworn in Nov. 15, 2013 - Curtin worked in the state's attorney's office from 1994 to 2004, when she became an administrative law judge. She had to travel across the state, but it allowed her to spend more time with her two boys.

Curtin, 49, and her husband, Sean, who live in Jarrettsville, found a balance in both their professional and personal lives and with their children.

All of Curtin's professional decisions have been based on what would be best for her family. Her boys are 17 and 18, they both drive and "have their own lives," so the time seemed right to pursue a judgeship.

And she is honored to have the position.

"I didn't grow up in Harford County. I came here in the early 1990s to be a prosecutor. I knew nothing about it. I was one of few minorities working, and eventually living in Harford County," Curtin, who moved to New Jersey from Cuba when she was a year old, said.

Harford has always embraced her differences, she said. Although she doesn't have a history here, she feels like she is part of Harford County.

"When you're able to work in the same community and give to the same community you live in, that's a rewarding experience," Curtin said. "I'm a Harford County girl now. This is my home, and these are my people."

Bowen was one of the first people Curtin worked with when she arrived at the state's attorney's office.

"I said, I want to be like her one day. I met her and she had this way about her, so diplomatic. She never passed judgment on an individual, she dealt with everyone even keel, you never saw her sweat, even in the most intense moments," Curtin said. "She did it with such calm, ease, and she thought it through and I thought, wow, this is the first person I get to deal with."

Their relationship, she said, has gone from the one mentoring to the one being mentored to one of friendship. The pair will often walk after work, their stress reliever.

"We let it all out. We just feel so good afterward," Curtin said.

Since 2002, she has also been teaching law students at University of Maryland. It's one way she's able to be a role model - she wants to share her experiences as a woman.

"I tell them, you can do it all. You have to give a lot of sacrifices, but you can do it all," she said.

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