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Trailblazers: Hon. Mary Ellen Barbera

Trailblazers: Hon. Mary Ellen Barbera

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barbera-judge-mary-ellen09mfHon. Mary Ellen Barbera

First female Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals

After graduating from Towson State College, Mary Ellen Barbera taught young children in Baltimore City Public Schools. During those years, she witnessed the challenges and struggles of the families of those students who lived in an impoverished community.

“I was inspired in those first few years to think about how I might better influence positive social change,” she said.

Concluding the legal profession offered a broad array of opportunities to serve the public, Barbera attended the University of Maryland School of Law at night while continuing to teach daily, all while caring for two young children at home.   

“Those years were challenging, but I knew then that it absolutely would be worth the effort, and the years have proved that to be so for me,” she said. “I have loved being a lawyer and more recently a judge.”

Barbera began her legal career clerking for Judge Robert L. Karwacki of the Court of Special Appeals and went on to serve as assistant attorney general in the criminal appeals division. She worked alongside Maryland Attorney Generals Steven H. Sachs and J. Joseph Curran Jr. and worked as legal counsel for Gov. Parris Glendening. 

During this time frame, Barbera went back to education part time and taught at the University of Baltimore and the Washington College of Law at American University. She retired last year from AU after more than 20 years of teaching.

“I will tell you that teaching the law gave me yet another perspective on how the law can and should operate for individuals and the larger community,” she said.

Her career thus far, she notes, was great preparation for her appointments to the Court of Special Appeals in 2002 and the Court of Appeals since 2008. Barbera was named chief judge — the first woman to hold the position — in 2013.

Barbera notes there has been a combination of many forces that led to her successful career — namely timing, having great co-workers and absorbing lessons from a multitude of people.

“New opportunities presented themselves to me at times in my career when I was prepared for and could pursue them,” she said. “As I developed experience over the years, I, of course, became better prepared to attempt to access those opportunities. I was fortunate indeed to have wonderful jobs as a lawyer and I can tell you I benefited enormously from each of those experiences.”

She is not sure that her challenges were very different than what confronted any woman making her way as a lawyer or in another professional career in the early 1980s. She is thankful for the trailblazers who cleared a path for her generation, and she hopes she has done the same for those who follow her to include women and those from underrepresented populations.

“I say that because it is my strong belief that our legal system and our judiciary here in Maryland will best maintain the confidence of the people if everyone is able to participate at all levels,” she said. “One can certainly say the challenges that I have had throughout my career have not been obstacles. They have encouraged me to be the best lawyer I could be, the best judge I could be. Those challenges are inherent in any of the jobs that I have had along the way, but I’ve never felt that I have personally encountered an obstacle, and I think that is owing to the people for whom I worked and the good fortune I had of having the jobs that I have had along the way.”

Barbera wants her legacy one day to be remembered as a chief judge who led a court that issued timely opinions of import and rigor. “I hope to be someone who furthered the rule of law and increased access to justice for everyone (who) resides in Maryland and that, over the years, I have made principled decisions in the administration of our Maryland judiciary. We ever strive to take the good and make it better.”


This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Path To Excellence: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Path to Excellence magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Path to Excellence.

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