ANNAPOLIS – The official portrait of retired Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera was destined to be highly symbolic, as it would be the first of 24 such drawings of the state’s top jurists going back to 1778 to feature a woman.
But contained in the portrait unveiled Thursday are a host of symbols chosen to depict a dedicated judge, accomplished appellate attorney, fierce advocate, proud Marylander and loving wife, mother and grandmother.
Barbera stepped down from the high court last September upon reaching Maryland’s mandatory judicial retirement age of 70.
Current Chief Judge Matthew J. Fader hosted the unveiling ceremony at the high court and said a young girl visiting the Court of Appeals might reasonably ask where the women are upon gazing at the portraits of all the men circling the atrium outside the courtroom.
“After this afternoon, never again,” Fader said. “We will finally have a portrait of a female chief judge.”
In the portrait, Barbera is seated in the red judicial robe she wore for the eight years she served as chief judge and on her lap are legal briefs of a case pending before the high court. On the wall are the framed certificates of her membership in the U.S. Supreme Court bar as well as of the First Citizen Award bestowed on her in 2018 by the Maryland Senate for her dedication and effective participation in state government.
On the table beside her is a gavel, which she said represents not only the job of a judge but a note of thanks to her dozens of law clerks, as the judicial hammer is a traditional gift these assistants give to their judge at the end of their tenure.
“We (judges) abide by the rule of law,” Barbera said in explaining the gavel’s significance.
The lone lawbook on the table is Volume 443 of Maryland Reports, which contains a tribute to the late Court of Appeals Judge Robert L. Karwacki, for whom Barbera clerked when he was on the Court of Special Appeals and whom she credits with launching her legal career.
“I won’t forget him,” Barbera said of her former boss, who died in June 2014.
Atop the book is a starfish, a nod to the parable about a boy seen throwing a starfish that had washed ashore back into the water. When told by a passerby that he could not possibly save all the starfish on the beach, the boy responded that, well, he could at least save this one.
Barbera said the story represents the essence of being a lawyer seeking to help all who need legal representation.
The starfish “expresses the notion that we can’t do it all for everyone,” Barbera said. “(But) we can help at least one.”
A quill on the table represents a U.S. Supreme Court souvenir from one of the two cases her husband, former Assistant Maryland Attorney General Gary E. Bair, argued before the justices.
“This quill comes from the case he won,” a smirking Barbera said, referring to Maryland v. Pringle, in which the Supreme Court held in 2003 that the arrest of a passenger in a car where cocaine was found did not violate the person’s constitutional protection against unreasonable seizure.
Bair lost in Wiggins v. Smith, in which the high court held in 2003 that defense counsel’s failure to investigate and present evidence of the defendant’s troubled upbringing at his capital sentencing proceeding represented constitutionally deficient legal assistance.
A vase on the table contains eight roses, for the four children and four grandchildren Barbera shares with Bair.
Diana “Danni” Dawson, the portrait artist, said at the unveiling that “we tried to make it very personal.”
Dawson is no stranger to painting trailblazing jurists, having drawn an official portrait of Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who appointed Barbera to the high court in 2008 and elevated her to chief in 2013, praised his appointee for having led the Maryland Judiciary during the “tumultuous times” of the COVID-19 pandemic.
O’Malley recalled his father, who was a lawyer, telling him that “the hottest places in Hell are reserved for governors who make poor judicial appointments.”
“I made a very, very good one in appointing you,” O’Malley quickly added in addressing Barbera at the ceremony.
Retired Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, the first Black to lead the high court, said that with Barbera’s appointment as his successor “no longer were women just members of the court.”
He called Barbera “a woman of singular skills and accomplishment.”