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O’Malley appoints Barbera as chief judge of Court of Appeals

UPDATED 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, July 3
ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley has appointed Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Mary Ellen Barbera to be the first female chief judge of the state’s highest court and also elevated Judge Shirley Watts from the Court of Special Appeals to the top court.

“Together, these decisions give the Maryland Court of Appeals its first ever female majority, first female Chief Judge, and first African American female judge,” the governor’s office said in a statement Wednesday morning.

Barbera’s appointment was first announced by retiring Chief Judge Robert Bell on Tuesday night.

Mary Ellen BarberaBell, who reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70 on July 6, said in an interview with The Associated Press that O’Malley informed him of his decision earlier in the day. Bell said he believed Barbera would be a “great” chief judge after working with her since she arrived on the bench in 2008.

“She’s also handled Judicial Institute and other matters, so we’ve seen her administrative skills,” Bell said, referring to the entity responsible for developing and conducting continuing judicial education programs for the Maryland judiciary.

O’Malley declined to discuss his selection while leaving the Maryland State House on Tuesday night after an event recognizing attorneys who do pro bono legal work, an event Bell also attended.

Bell, who represents Baltimore city on the bench, has served as chief judge of the seven-member court since 1996.

Barbera, 61, was elevated to the Court of Appeals in August 2008 after more than six years on the Court of Special Appeals. Before that, she was legal counsel to then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who appointed her to the intermediate court in January 2002. She also served as deputy chief of the criminal affairs division in the Office of the Maryland Attorney General from 1989 to 1998, after serving as assistant attorney general from 1985 to 1989.

Barbera was a pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teacher in the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore from 1975 to 1984 and attended the University of Maryland School of Law at night. She graduated in 1984 and joined the state bar that year.

On the high court, Barbera represents the Seventh Appellate Circuit, comprised entirely of Montgomery County.

Watts was appointed an associate judge of the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland in January 2011, after nine years as an associate judge for the Baltimore City Circuit Court. From 1999 to 2002, she served as the chief administrative law judge for the Social Security Administration’s Baltimore Office of Hearings and Appeals, and earlier was an ALJ for the agency’s offices in Downey, Calif. and Harrisburg, Pa.

A graduate of Howard University and of the Rutgers University School of Law-Camden, Watts practiced with Cummings and Smith P.A. in Baltimore before joining the state’s attorney’s office in 1984. She switched sides and joined the Office of the Federal Public Defender in 1988, staying there until 1997. She has also been an adjunct law professor and has chaired the History Committee of the Baltimore Chapter of the NAACP.

At an Annapolis news conference Wednesday morning, O’Malley also announced several appointments to the trial courts:

– Joan Elizabeth Ryon to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County;

– Stacy Adele Mayer to the Maryland District Court  in Baltimore County; and

– Lisa Angela Hall Johnson and Gregory Cronin Powell to the Maryland District Court in Prince George’s County.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.