Mary Arabian, 1st woman Municipal Court judge, dies

Served almost 30 years on bench in Baltimore

August 26, 2002|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

Mary Arabian, who began a 30-year judicial career as the first woman judge on Baltimore's old Municipal Court, died in her sleep yesterday of complications from infarct dementia at a private home in Perry Hall. She was 81.

Judge Arabian was a former law partner of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, the former Baltimore mayor who as governor named her to the University of Maryland Board of Regents after her 1990 retirement from the bench.

Distressed at word of her death last night, Mr. Schaefer said, "I don't know how else to describe her except that she was a wonderful lady. She was a very close friend. When you were Mary's friend, you were a friend for life."

The daughter of rug repairer Adam Arabian and Rose Kachadourian-Arabian, who were of Armenian descent, she was born in Washington and moved to Baltimore as a child. She was raised in the Hamilton neighborhood, attending the old Montebello Grammar School and Clifton Park Junior High, and graduating in 1939 from Eastern High School.

She considered a career as a doctor, but was lured away from that notion by the lawyers who visited her family's home, by the stories of presidents who began their careers as lawyers and by a book about noted defense attorney Clarence Darrow.

"He pretty nearly convinced me, and there's a lot of credit to his theory, that it's a society that is the criminal," she told The Sun in 1990. "Literally that isn't true, but there are social pressures that contribute to crime."

She worked for a few years as a part-time bookkeeper and salesgirl at the Hochschild-Kohn department store, while beginning studies that would lead to a law degree from the University of Maryland in 1944. A year later, she was admitted to the Maryland Bar.

After working through the late 1940s for the Real Estate Title Co., she went into private law practice in 1951 as a member of the firm of Schaefer, Waltjen & Arabian.

She also served as an assistant city solicitor from 1959 to 1960, and then assistant attorney general for nearly a year before her appointment by Gov. J. Millard Tawes in May 1961 as the first woman on the city's Municipal Court, precursor to the District Court of Maryland, in which the judges presided over a seven-day-a-week docket in each of the city's nine police stations.

Judge Arabian and Judge Shirley Jones, who months later was appointed as the first woman on the former city Supreme Bench, were considered pioneers before women's rights became a national cause. Judge Arabian was elected the next year to her first 10-year term - a period in which she largely served as the city's Housing Court judge.

When judging juvenile offenders for criminal offenses, she became known for her efforts to help those placed on probation. She would personally interview the youths after sentencing, she once said, to "show them someone cares."

She was in her second term on the lower court when elevated to the Supreme Bench in 1974. She remained there as it became the Baltimore Circuit Court, retiring in 1990.

Active in professional and civic organizations, Judge Arabian in 1944 was president of Phi Delta Delta, a legal sorority, and served as the first woman president of the University of Maryland Law School Alumni Association from 1959 to 1960.

In her 30 years on the bench, Judge Arabian heard all manner of criminal and civil matters, from upholding the sale of muskrat meat by fish dealers to striking down a city law that for five years had banned the posting of house "for sale" signs.

The sign ban had been enacted in 1974 to end one of the blockbusting tactics used by real estate brokers to scare white owners into selling their homes as neighborhoods were becoming racially integrated. Judge Arabian, hearing a test case in 1979, agreed with the finding of a court master that a Supreme Court ruling striking down a similar law in New Jersey made the city's law unenforceable.

Among the government leaders upset by the decision was Mr. Schaefer - then the city's mayor.

It was in criminal cases that Judge Arabian could on occasion add a humane touch at a time of pathos - like the case in 1984 when a convicted rapist-robber about to be sentenced decried the fairness of his trial and proclaimed innocence, saying at one point, "I don't want to cry because I'm a man."

"There's nothing wrong with crying - for a man, for anybody," Judge Arabian replied, and then sentenced him to life plus 30 years.

A viewing will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. tomorrow at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road, with the funeral there at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

She is survived by six cousins.

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