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No. 4: Mary Ellen Barbera

Chief Judge
Maryland Court of Appeals

barbera-mary-ellenThe first female chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals began her professional career in 1975 — fresh out of Towson State College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education — as a teacher in the Baltimore City Public Schools.

It was work that inspired Mary Ellen Barbera to think about how she could effect social change, she has said. When she concluded that the legal profession offered the best opportunities, she enrolled at the University of Maryland School of Law, attending at night as she was still teaching daily and raising two young children.

After graduating from law school in 1984, Barbera clerked for then-Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Robert L Karwacki, a man she still considers one of her chief mentors. “He became a lifelong friend and mentor,” Barbera said. “By the end of the year in his court, I found appellate work to be my calling.”

Her other top mentors, she said, included other retired Maryland judges, Charles E. Moylan and Andrew L. Sonner, and her mother, Mildred Peet Santiago.

Barbera was appointed to the Court of Special Appeals in 2002 and the Court of Appeals in 2008. In 2013, she was named chief judge.

In that role, she has led the court system through the pandemic, closing the courts to the public for months and authorizing judges to use electronic means to conduct legal proceedings whenever possible. In May, she announced a phased reopening of the court system.

She said her hope for the state and the community this year, is that “we emerge from the pandemic and the upheavals of the last year stronger, wiser, more resilient, and more just, both as a Judiciary and as a state.”

Asked the most important lesson she has learned during her decades-long career in both the law and teaching (she also has taught at the University of Baltimore and the Washington College of Law at American University), Barbera kept it short and simple: “Be principled.”

As for her biggest success, Barbera, 69, said, she would let history answer that question.

This profile is part of The Daily Record's Power 100 list for 2021. Information used in this profile was sourced from the honoree. See the full list at or in our digital edition.