When departing Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed veteran prosecutor Sue-Ellen Hantman to the Howard District Court bench this month, he created a judicial first.
For the first time, women will outnumber men on a Howard judicial bench. And it is believed to be the first majority female bench statewide in a court with more than one judge, state officials say.
With Hantman's swearing in Thursday, women judges in Howard District Court will outnumber men 3-2. The two county benches combined - Circuit and District courts - will feature an even split. And the 10th Judicial District, which includes Howard and Carroll district judges, will be composed of four women and three men.
Judicial officials say the gender shift is significant.
"It may be a good thing, and it may be a sign that it shouldn't be considered unusual," said Maryland's Chief District Court Judge James N. Vaughan.
The shift also might be one of the more visible proofs of the success of Glendening's eight-year drive to diversify Maryland's judiciary.
While in office, Glendening has made 172 judicial appointments, according to a list provided by his staff. Of those, 64, or 37 percent, were women, and 45, or 26 percent, belonged to a minority group.
In the past eight years, the number of women judges on benches statewide increased from 15 percent to 30 percent, according to the governor's office. Minority representation on the bench also increased during that interval, from 12 percent to 19 percent.
The governor's list also highlights 18 "firsts," among them: the first African-American on a Howard County court, the first Asian-American on a Maryland court and the first woman to hold a judgeship on the Eastern Shore.
"This is one of the governor's proudest achievements," said Glendening spokesman Charles F. Porcari.
`As it should be'
Howard's majority female bench was almost an inevitability, given that women have flocked to law schools, creating a 50-50 split or a female majority in some classes, said Sherrilyn A. Ifill, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.
Throughout the country, the number of female judges has increased at an "incredible rate," she said.
"And that's as it should be," Ifill said. "It tracks law school enrollment."
Where Maryland and other states lag, though, is in the number of minority judges, she said.
Although Glendening appointed black judges to Circuit Court benches, voters chose not to keep two on the bench, voting instead for white candidates in Circuit Court races. Howard's Donna Hill Staton, who is black, lost to Howard Circuit Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, who is white, in 1996, and Baltimore County Circuit Judge Alexander Wright Jr. lost two Circuit appointments after elections in 2000 and this year.
Officials need to find out why the electorate is rejecting black candidates, Ifill said.
"Diversity is not only a good thing, it's an essential thing," she said. "A bench has to also be impartial ... and part of impartiality is ensuring you have different and diverse viewpoints that are interacting."
For Hantman, Howard's majority female bench is in keeping with a trend she has watched since she graduated from law school in 1969. When she entered Rutgers School of Law in the late 1960s, 11 members of her class of about 150 were women. A decade later, when she moved to Maryland and took the bar exam here, she noticed an increase in the number of women taking the bar.
Howard's majority female bench might be "a symbol of how far we've come," Hantman said.
And although she and others insist that there is no difference between justice dispensed by a man and that dispensed by a woman, judges and experts agree that the judiciary's face plays into the public's perception of justice.
"We say `a jury of your peers,'" Hantman said. "It's not bad to have a judge who looks like you or has the same background as you."
Four of the five women serving on Howard's two benches were appointed by Glendening. (The fifth, Gelfman was already on the District Court and won her Circuit seat by defeating Hill Staton.)
That is not, judicial officials say, to overlook the efforts of previous governors who appointed their share of firsts: Acting Gov. Blair Lee III appointed the first black judge and the first female judge to the Court of Appeals in the late 1970s, said Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.
"There had been diversity, but the level of diversity here is reflective of Maryland as it exists today," Bell said. "What [Glendening] proved, too, is you can have diversity and have quality, which is important."