David Mason, 88, Cabinet secretary, first black appellate judge in Md.

November 18, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

David Talbert Mason, who became Maryland's first African-American appellate judge when he was appointed to the Court of Special Appeals in 1974, died of cancer Sunday at his Cross Keys home. He was 88.

A trailblazer in a life of public service that spanned more than 40 years, Judge Mason rose from the bottom rungs of the bureaucratic career ladder to a judgeship.

He was the first black appeals referee for the old state Department of Employment Security and years later was the first black full-time chairman of the state Parole Board.

When named secretary of the Maryland Department of Employment and Social Services in 1972, he was the first African-American to serve as a member of a governor's Cabinet in Maryland.

"We all feel a deep debt of gratitude to Judge Mason, who throughout his life blazed the trail for African-Americans. And when he was appointed to the Court of Special Appeals, all eyes were on him," said Judge Arrie W. Davis, a current member of the state's second-highest court.

"He brought to every position he held integrity, intelligence and dignity," said Larry S. Gibson, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and longtime friend.

Judge Mason was born in Providence, R.I., and, after the death of his father, moved in 1929 with his mother, a cook, to a home on McCulloh Street.

A 1933 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School, he was captain of its football team, played basketball and competed in track. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1937 from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

When he was hired by the Maryland Department of Employment Security as an interviewer in 1942, he was told by a supervisor not to take telephone calls from white people.

"It just goes to show you how segregated it was," Judge Mason said in an interview with Maryland Public Television several years ago.

After serving in the Army during World War II, he attended the University of Maryland School of Law on the GI Bill and was admitted to the state bar in 1951. He began practicing law with the Baltimore firm of W.A.C. Hughes while remaining with the state employment agency.

In 1963, he became a prosecutor in the Baltimore state's attorney's office, then was chief of the criminal division of the Maryland attorney general's office from 1967 to 1969, when he was named chairman of the Parole Board by Gov. Spiro T. Agnew.

He was appointed secretary of the Department of Employment and Social Services in 1972 by Gov. Marvin Mandel, serving until 1974, when Mr. Mandel named him to the appellate court. He retired in 1983.

"He was a completely charming and well-rounded person who was qualified for every position he ever held. He advanced by his own energy and desire, and had the special ability of doing a job and doing it very well," Mr. Mandel said yesterday.

"He really cared about the cases he was involved in. He was deliberate and always put a lot of thought and energy into every opinion," said Baltimore Circuit Judge David W. Young, who had been a law clerk for Judge Mason.

Judge Davis remembered his "quick wit" and ability to "instantly cut to the chase and substance of a case."

"I appeared before him many times as a lawyer, and he was a no-nonsense judge. He always directed your attention to the matters at hand," Judge Davis said.

"He loved the law and wanted to use his legal education to advance the rights and cause of black people. And he realized the way to accomplish those goals was through the law," said his wife of 47 years, the former Margaret Spriggs, who recently retired as coordinator of boards and commissions for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"He recently told me that one of the things he was most proud of was having served as a member of the Maryland Constitutional Convention during the 1960s and being able to work with the very best legal minds," said Maryland's Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of the Court of Appeals.

One of Judge Mason's cherished mementos from his long career was an uncashed 1-cent check that dated to 1954. After being frisked in a shakedown of a Pennsylvania Avenue nightclub by police, Judge Davis sued the city in a case that reached the state Court of Appeals -- which found that the search was illegal and awarded him the penny for damages.

"His whole legal career was spent in the public sector, and he set a standard for excellence," said Karen H. Rothenberg, dean of the University of Maryland School of Law.

Judge Davis enjoyed playing golf and spending winters at a second home in Florida. He was a member for 65 years of the Guardsmen, a social organization of black professional men. He was also a member of a Saturday morning breakfast group made up of lawyers and judges who met at Cross Keys for breakfast and informed chatter.

A memorial service will be held at noon Saturday in the Ceremonial Courtroom at the Maryland law school, 500 W. Baltimore St.

In addition to his wife, Judge Mason is survived by a daughter, Donna M. Peterson of Ashburton, and two granddaughters.

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