An Interview with Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera
By Court of Special Appeals Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff

This is an excerpt of an interview from The Maryland Litigator, September 2013, published by the Litigation Section of the Maryland State Bar Association. It is reprinted with the permission of the Litigation Section, which is chaired by Court of Appeals Judge Glenn T. Harrell.

Q. What are your priorities as you begin your tenure as chief judge? What are some of your goals?

A. In publicly thanking Governor O’Malley on the day he announced his selection of me as chief judge, I promised him and everyone present that I am committed to doing whatever it takes to facilitate and bring to the people of Maryland fair, equitable, and timely administration of justice. That includes expeditious decision-making at all levels of our court system, without sacrificing sound decision-making.

I also want to provide our judges with the tools they need to do their job well. Some of those tools are concrete, such as providing the technological support judges need to make wise rulings, expeditiously. Other tools are less concrete, and include, for example, providing high-quality continuing professional education for our judges and the many fine employees who support the work we do.

It is important to a robust judiciary that everyone working in it, the judges and those who in a host of ways help them, be given what they need to get the job done.

Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera

Q. What aspects of your new role are you looking forward to the most?

A. I’m beginning to see there are many and varied administrative challenges, all of them, though, exciting to undertake. I will be looking for opportunities to make our already fine state judiciary even stronger and better.

Right now, I am focusing on learning how we operate and determining how we might improve our operation. We have 300-plus incumbent judges, a large number of retired/recalled judges, nearly 4,000 other employees, and an operating budget of about $469 million. I am taking great pleasure in visiting courthouses around the state and meeting the many fine people who make the system work.

I look forward to working productively with the executive and legislative branches of our state government, as we share the common goal of improving the lives of all Marylanders. I also am eager to work with our law schools and our other partners in the legal community — bar associations, law firms, government agencies, and the like — to enhance the delivery of justice
to everyone.

I will have many opportunities to meet members of our statewide community. I hope to capitalize on those opportunities to illuminate what judges and lawyers do and how our work, which honors the rule of law, benefits all of us.

And, of course, I will continue to love the work of the Court of Appeals. To the last, my colleagues are hardworking and dedicated judges, and terrific women and men. I believe I speak for all of us in saying that we are fortunate indeed to have the great privilege of serving the people of Maryland by interpreting the law, through the decisions we make in the cases that come before us. There is, quite simply, no better job in the law.

Q. What inspired you to pursue a legal career?

A. I wanted to be, and eventually became, an elementary school teacher. I did not even consider the law as a profession until my mid-20s. At that time I was married with two children, and I was teaching in the Baltimore City Public School System. I was witness to the early stages of the law career of my then-brother-in-law, and I also met other lawyers. The work they did seemed to me to be rewarding and professionally challenging. Within a short time, I decided to try law school. I attended at night, while continuing to teach, and, upon graduation, was fortunate to have a series of wonderful professional opportunities in the law.

Q. How did your experience in the Baltimore City Public School System impact your career?

A. I taught in a federally funded program run through some of the public schools in the city for preschool-age children. Working with the children and their parents gave me the opportunity to witness first-hand, the economic and societal stresses confronting those families. Those young parents, some only teenagers, had the same hopes and dreams for their children as I had for mine. I was struck by the many hurdles those parents faced, most not of their own making, that blocked their efforts to make a better life for themselves and their children.

The lessons learned from those years as a school teacher have not left me. I have been a public servant, in one form or another, ever since. Even now, that early life experience continues — along with many other factors, of course — to inform how I think about the law and its impact on the lives of everyone, not just the litigants immediately before the court.

Curved Bench image

Q. How has your experience in the Maryland Office of the Attorney General and working as chief legal counsel for Gov. Glendening helped you get to the point where you are now?

A. Every professional experience provides new opportunities for growth.

In the Attorney General’s Office, I worked with so many fine attorneys and for two great Attorneys General. It was particularly rewarding to have the chance to be involved in addressing some crucial issues facing Marylanders, and I learned much about the law.

In Gov. Glendening’s office, I learned much, from the inside, about how law is made and public policy is developed. I witnessed the inter-relationship among the three branches of government, and I learned that there can be productive outcomes when there is cooperation among the three branches, with full recognition and adherence to, of course, the principle of separation of powers.

My prior jobs have combined, I hope, to prepare me for the job I have now undertaken.