Judge Shirley B. Jones’ life was a series of legal firsts.
A trailblazer, she was the first woman to be named a federal judge in Maryland history. Earlier, she was the first female judge elected to the old Supreme Bench of Baltimore City and the state’s first female assistant attorney general.
Judge Jones died May 16 of pneumonia at her Edenwald retirement community home in Towson, where she was a longtime resident. She was 93.
“You know the terms. Trailblazer. Shattering the glass ceiling and all of those things that apply to Shirley Jones are an understatement,” said Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., former judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals and the Circuit Court of Baltimore County, and a longtime friend.
“I had the privilege of trying cases before her on the old Supreme Bench and federal District Court, and she came very well prepared. She knew the issues and was a wonderful trial judge who could control her courtroom,” he said. “Shirley never had to raise her voice and just had that quality that made lawyers want to be at their best when they were in her courtroom. She was just wonderful.”
“There is no bombast or great showmanship,” about Judge Jones, the late Walter Sondheim Jr., chairman of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management, told The Sun in a 1982 profile of her. “She is forceful in a very quiet way.”
The former Shirley Brannock, the daughter of Linwood U. Brannock, a civilian Coast Guard worker and sailmaker, and his wife, Edith Lake Brannock, a homemaker, was born in Cambridge, raised there and graduated from Cambridge High School in 1942.
A high school job her senior year as an “office boy” in the Cambridge law office of former Maryland Gov. Emerson C. Harrington led Judge Jones to consider becoming a lawyer, even though a lawyer she admired told her that the law was a man’s profession.
“It’s funny how things worked,” she told The Sun, “because that to me was a challenge. It was not what I expected.”
Judge Jones earned an associate degree from what is now Baltimore City Community College in 1944. She obtained her law degree in 1946 from the University of Baltimore, where she was first in her class and paid her tuition a week at a time from her salary as a stenographer. Upon graduation from law school, she received the award for best thesis and attained the highest scholastic average.
She still was not certain that a law career was possible because there were few female lawyers in the city in the 1940s and 1950s, “not even in token roles,” The Sun observed.
Admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1947, and in addition to maintaining a private general law practice, Judge Jones was an attorney with the state Department of Employment Security from 1946 to 1952. She served as assistant city solicitor for Baltimore City from 1952 to 1958, when she was appointed by Maryland Attorney General C. Ferdinand Sybert as the first female assistant attorney general.
She served as a judge of the Orphan’s Court of Baltimore City from 1959 to 1961, when she made legal history again when Gov. J. Millard Tawes appointed her as the first woman on the old Supreme Bench of Baltimore City. The next year, she was elected to two 15-year terms.
At the time of her appointment to the Supreme Bench, she told The Evening Sun she “always had a natural interest in the law. Laws and the affairs of government go hand in hand.”
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to a federal judgeship in Maryland, making her the first woman to hold that position on the nine-member bench.
“Of course I am pleased that the time has finally come for a woman to be considered for the United States Court. But I took my position as a judge and that is how I intend to perform my duties,” she told The Sun at the time.
“My first love, professionally, is the trial court because I enjoy daily contact with lawyers and litigants,” she explained, and as a trial judge she felt it was wonderful being part of the “driving force of the law.”
“Known neither for strictness nor for leniency in imposing criminal sentences, Judge Jones has won a reputation for fairness,” The Sun commented when she joined the federal bench.
Said Judge Murphy: “The one who goes first just by virtue of human nature makes it easier or more difficult for those who follow. She was an excellent judge and made it easier for the female lawyers who joined her and followed her through the door, and the model for that would be Shirley Jones. That captures her greatness. She opened the door wider for all of them.”
Judge Jones said in a 1982 Sun interview: “I had it tough, but not as tough as those women lawyers before me. Women couldn’t even belong to the city bar association until 1957. That was an obstacle in your profession.”
She became a member of the bar association the following year.
Sitting on the federal bench brought changes in her work.
“At the federal court, I had to unlearn a lot of things. The federal rules of evidence are much different,” she told The Sun. “There’s much more red tape as far as the rules are concerned. I had to learn to set up management of chambers, and each judge handles his own assignments.”
When a reporter pointed out her use of the pronoun “his,” she replied, “I guess I am still a bit of a chauvinist.”
Judge Jones told The Sun in 1982 that she was not a member of a feminist organization.
“I am not much of a joiner so far as the so-called feminist movement is concerned,” she said. “I feel that if I had a message as far as women, the message would come out in my performance. I think that makes the case. I feel if [women] have the ability, they can perform the job.”
Judge Jones was known as being diminutive and always “ready with a quick smile,” noted The Sun, who also praised her ‘judicial abilities and wry humor, which often surfaces in demure quips and puns delivered from the bench.”
She once described herself as being low-profile. ”But yes, that’s me all right,” she said.
The former resident of Tudor Arms Avenue who later moved to Homeland, announced her retirement in 1982, explaining “I have never felt better in my life,” and that it was for ‘happy circumstances.”
She and her husband, William L. Jones, a lawyer who never practiced and a CPA who was a partner in the accounting firm of C.W. Amos & Co., whom she married in 1953, desired to spend more time at their second home, which they owned in St. Michaels.
“I have had 23 years in the judiciary. I feel honored to have been on state and federal benches,” she told The Sun at the time.
“I have no aspiration for appellate work, which is the only way to go from here. I like trial work and real people. I have gone as far as I can and am fully satisfied. I was fortunate to come along at a time when the value of women lawyers was finally becoming appreciated. I haven’t had children, but I have nothing but admiration for the modern female lawyer who can practice and rear a family.”
Her husband died in 2014.
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