Judge Cole dies at age 78

Legal pioneer was first black on state's highest court

February 15, 1999|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Retired Judge Harry A. Cole, the first black to serve on Maryland's highest court and the first elected to the state Senate, died yesterday at Church Hospital in Baltimore of complications from pneumonia. He was 78.

Judge Cole made history in 1954 when he became the first black to win a state Senate seat and again in 1977 when he was the first black named to the Court of Appeals, where he served until his retirement in 1991.

Among his most notable accomplishments during his 14-year tenure on the court were writing the unanimous opinion that upheld the right of the state to fund abortions for poor women and his lone dissent in a decision upholding Maryland's method of local funding of public schools.

His death after a yearlong illness brought tributes from both political and judicial leaders.

"He was a remarkable man -- one of the great heroes of 20th-century Maryland political history," Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said in a statement last night. "He was a true path-breaker and a man all Marylanders could admire."

Retired Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, who served with Judge Cole on the Court of Appeals, called the death of his colleague "a great loss."

A `good dissenter'

Judge Murphy said he was a "good dissenter -- he liked to dissent." He said the jurist had a particular interest in the rights of prisoners and the "constitutional protections afforded all citizens."

Retired Judge Solomon Baylor, who served with Judge Cole in the Baltimore court system in the 1970s, said he had a "brilliant legal mind."

Judge Baylor said Judge Cole's historic appointment to the state's highest court was important, not just to blacks but to everyone.

"It changed the theory that the highest bench was just for certain types of people," he said.

"He was the most qualified, so the people got the best," Judge Baylor added.

The son of a tailor and one of five children, Judge Cole was born in Washington on New Year's Day in 1921. His father died when he was an infant, and his mother moved the family to Baltimore, where she had grown up.

All his schooling -- from grade school through law school -- was done in the city. He graduated from Douglass High School in 1939 and from then-Morgan State College in 1943, with highest honors.

He spent the last two years of World War II in the Army, serving in Europe and the Pacific. After the war, he returned to Baltimore to attend the University of Maryland School of Law, graduating in 1949.

Four years later, Judge Cole was hired as an assistant state attorney general, the first black lawyer to work in the office that provides legal advice to state agencies.

But it was in 1954 that he made an irrevocable mark on the state's political landscape when he successfully challenged the Northwest Baltimore machine of the late James H. "Jack" Pollack.

Challenging the machine

A Republican, Judge Cole had run unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates in 1950 and for the City Council in 1951. But this time, he succeeded in knocking off Mr. Pollack's candidate, incumbent state Sen. Bernard S. Melnicove, by 37 votes in a bitterly contested election.

That made Judge Cole Maryland's first black state senator -- and helped encourage a generation of politicians.

"He was a leader for black folks," former Baltimore Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns said yesterday.

In an interview three years ago, Victorine Q. Adams, a former city councilwoman and state legislator, put the significance of Judge Cole's victory into perspective.

"Harry Cole opened the floodgates because his victory proved we could do it," Mrs. Adams said.

Reason over race

To Judge Cole, his victory symbolized a triumph of reason over race.

"For years, whenever a qualified candidate of color has campaigned against his ticket, [Mr. Pollack] has attempted to promote the idea that the candidate runs on the basis of race rather than one of qualifications to serve," he said at the time.

Though he had forever altered the political landscape, Judge Cole would serve only one term. In 1958, he lost by 2,000 votes to a Pollack ticket; a year later, he lost in a bid for the City Council.

But it turned out that Judge Cole's public role was just beginning. That same year, he became the first chairman of the Maryland Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

City court tenure

He maintained a private legal practice and in 1967 was appointed by then-Gov. Spiro Agnew to a seat on the old city Municipal Court. A year later, he was appointed by Mr. Agnew to the Supreme Bench, now known as the Circuit Court, the city's principal trial court.

It was during his 10-year tenure on city courts that he demonstrated the interest in prisoners' rights that left an impression on his fellow jurists. Demonstrating his evenhandedness and his commitment to constitutional principles, he once dismissed charges against two demonstrators protesting integration, saying they had the right to rally no matter what their cause.

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