In three years as a Baltimore County District Court judge, Vicki Ballou-Watts has won over much of the county's legal community.
"She listens, she takes charge and she's very fair," said Carey Deeley Jr., a Towson lawyer and a former president of the Baltimore County Bar Association.
But when she is sworn in this month as the county's first black female Circuit Court judge, Ballou-Watts will be breaking a barrier in a jurisdiction where critics say too many judges have been white males.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening called the county's record for judicial diversity "unacceptable" last year and directed the legal community to submit more women and minority candidates to him for judgeships. His first African-American appointment to the county Circuit Court, Alexander Wright Jr., was defeated in the March 2000 primary.
Glendening has since reappointed Wright, who is running for his seat on the Circuit Court again this fall.
Of the county's 12 circuit judges, Wright is the only African-American. Of the county's 13 District Court judges, Ballou-Watts is one of two African-Americans.
The county is 20 percent African-American.
Ballou-Watts, 44, is aware of the county's record for judicial appointments. But she is confident of her skills and - like others who work with her - knows she earned the position based on her abilities and hard work.
"I'm very proud of the fact that I'm the first. But I like to think the governor saw in me somebody who's worked hard and done a good job," she said.
Judge Alexandra N. Williams, who serves with her in Towson District Court, said Ballou-Watts has distinguished herself as a good listener who is well versed in the law.
"Above and beyond any issues of race or gender equity, this is a woman who is intelligent, tremendously fair and is really a jewel for Baltimore County citizens to have on the bench," Williams said.
Ballou-Watts was born in Montgomery, Ala., where her mother worked for a few years in the 1950s as a personal secretary to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
She was the youngest of four children in a family that moved frequently throughout the South as her father, an organist and music teacher, accepted teaching positions at various colleges.
She spent her early years in Elizabeth City, N.C., and moved to Charlotte, N.C., during her high school years when her parents separated.
She majored in journalism at Howard University and completed an internship at The Washington Post before she graduated with honors in 1980.
She earned a law degree from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1983.
While still in law school, she began looking for legal internships in Maryland to be near her future husband, Claude Watts Jr., a health care consultant from Baltimore. They met while they were students at Howard.
"She came here to be with the love of her life," said Gerald A. Smith, a Baltimore lawyer who hired Ballou-Watts as a law clerk and then as an associate when she passed the Maryland bar exam on her first try in 1984.
`Quick on her feet'
Smith credited Ballou-Watts with being a thorough lawyer who cares about her clients.
"She's quick on her feet, her legal analysis is excellent and she's very good with people," Smith said.
Ballou-Watts worked for Smith for three years until she set up her own practice in 1987.
She handled a variety of cases, including contract disputes and personal injury cases, before she became the county's first black female judge when Glendening appointed her to the District Court in 1999.
While she was in college, Ballou-Watts thought that she would one day like to own a radio station. But she went into law because it was there she felt she could do the most good for people.
"Lawyers work hard. A lot of people don't realize it, but they do," Ballou-Watts said. "It's a profession where I think you have a chance to help people who really need help."
Ballou-Watts loves jazz, is particularly a fan of Ella Fitzgerald and enjoys reading novels and taking walks in the neighborhoods around her Reisterstown home with her three children.
She will be sworn in to the $119,600 position May 29 in the County Courts Building in Towson. She succeeds J. William Hinkel, who retired in April.
She was one of four people named to fill Circuit Court vacancies April 25. The other appointees are Susan M. Souder, Ruth A. Jakubowski and state Del. Michael J. Finifter.