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Editorial: A new era for Maryland’s Judiciary

The governor’s decision to put Judge Mary Ellen Barbera in charge of the Court of Appeals is one for the history books, as she will be the first woman to head the state’s Judiciary since its establishment in Colonial times.

Beyond that, there are reasons to hope that soon-to-be Chief Judge Barbera truly will usher in a new era on the court.

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell has earned respect and acclaim as a thoughtful jurist and tireless advocate for access to justice and legal services. His personal history and achievements also make him a powerful symbol for civil rights, one that all of Maryland can point to with pride.

Judge Barbera’s experiences as a former prosecutor, kindergarten teacher and law professor may carry less cachet; however, her commitment to the rule of law, the rights of the accused and the responsibilities of the bar are unquestioned. And on two important matters of justice — timeliness and transparency — all indications are that Chief Judge Barbera will improve on her predecessor’s record.

In her first public address after Gov. Martin O’Malley made his selection known Wednesday, Judge Barbera promised to strive for the “equal, fair and timely administration of justice in Maryland.”

“When I say timely … I mean from the top and throughout the Judiciary,” she said.

Judge Barbera did not further define her meaning of “timely”; however, her average turnaround time between hearing a case and issuing an opinion, as calculated by The Daily Record after the court’s 2012 term, was 3.39 months compared with more than 31 months for Chief Judge Bell. (Last month, with Chief Judge Bell’s mandatory retirement looming on July 6, the court was still clearing up cases it had heard in its 2005 and 2007 terms.)

On transparency, too, Judge Barbera has declined to follow the current chief’s lead.

In 1975, the Court of Appeals decided that judges did not have to completely fill out the financial disclosure forms required of other public officials in Maryland. Chief Judge Bell did not create that rule, but he fully embraced it; in fact, for more than a decade, he identified his corporate holdings only as Items 1, 2, 3 and 4 and disclosed only that they had not changed.

Judge Barbera, by contrast, has opted for full disclosure, naming not only her investments, but also including several pages of documentation.

“I have always endeavored to give a complete answer to every question asked on the Financial Disclosure form,” she told The Daily Record in 2011.

Judge Barbera’s attitudes, actions and legal acumen all undoubtedly contributed to her selection by the governor. The fact that she is the first woman to lead the state’s highest court — which, thanks to the simultaneous elevation of Judge Shirley A. Watts, now has four women and three men — is a gratifying symbol of progress toward gender equality.

Ultimately, though, the value of Chief Judge Barbera’s appointment will not depend on the choices the governor announced Wednesday.

If her term is to be truly historic, it will depend on the choices she makes starting Saturday.