From outsider to county's top judge, Leasure's respect widespread

Former teacher will return to classroom after stepping down in November; highest-profile case was Linda Tripp trial

  • Judge Diane O. Leasure, Fifth Circuit and County Administrative Judge, in her court room at Howard County Circuit Court
Judge Diane O. Leasure, Fifth Circuit and County Administrative… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
May 14, 2011|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

As Howard County's top Circuit Court judge, Diane Leasure has been described by colleagues as a fair-minded, even-keeled arbiter. One veteran defense attorney went so far as to call Leasure an "ideal judge". So it might be difficult to imagine the obstacles she faced when she first sought a nomination in 1995.

Leasure had been working as an attorney in Prince George's County, and most on the nominating commission viewed her as an outsider. Jason Shapiro, a defense lawyer and former assistant state's attorney who was a member of the commission, said some thought Leasure was a "carpetbagger of sorts" because of her ties to the county and, indirectly, to its former executive, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"There was a feeling when she put her name in that there were people on the commission already making snide or derogatory remarks, people [who] hadn't even met her yet," Shapiro recalled. "No one really knew her in Howard County. People felt this was an inside job, that there was something unseemly. I kept an open mind. Then she sat down and got grilled."

Leasure held her own under questioning and, according to Shapiro, won strong support. Elected to a 15-year term the following year, Leasure, 58, recently announced that that she will step down after her term ends in November.

Sitting in her chambers last week, Leasure recalled the interview with the nominating commission.

"Just the enormity of the process and obviously the position itself, I knew I had to be prepared. I certainly went in knowing it was going to be difficult, even though we had lived in Howard County for about 15 years," she said. "Not having practiced much in the Howard County Circuit Court, that was a big strike against me, and people did not know me."

The feeling in the county's legal community is much different now as Leasure, who was appointed the court's administrative judge in 2002, prepares to leave the bench. Shapiro and other prominent defense attorneys say that Leasure, whose highest-profile trial involved the White House wiretapping case involving Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky, will be missed and difficult to replace.

Clarke Ahlers, a defense attorney who acknowledged that he has "brought a lot of bad actors in front of her" and has lost far more cases with Leasure than he has won, calls Leasure "an ideal judge" who does some of her best work outside the courtroom.

"One of her great strengths is her ability off the bench to help people resolve differences," Ahlers said. "I think that she's a natural problem-solver. Part of that is she has great empathy for people. I think the quality she has that's almost rare is that of grace. Even when she's asking you to compromise, because of her empathy and because of her character, she motivates you to want to compromise."

Shapiro said that even defendants "who've done horrible things and might not be deserving of respect, she still gives them respect."

It is a character trait Leasure learned long before she first donned a judge's robe, even before she left a career as a middle-school teacher to go to law school at age 27.

As the eldest of six children growing up in Cumberland, Leasure often found herself being "the peacemaker" among her younger siblings. From what she describes as an idyllic childhood, she said that she also took with her something else her parents tried to instill — a sense of valuing the opinion of others and "treating people the way you would want to be treated."

Leasure's demeanor is also reflective of the 13 years she spent as litigator, mostly on construction and other business-related cases.

"Your client always wants to win, but one of the things I try to recall on the bench every day is that it's not so much the winning or losing, it's that you were treated fairly and somebody listened to what you had to say," Leasure said recently. "The public's perception of the legal system and court proceedings, so much of it is based on how they or other people view how they are being treated."

After stepping down, Leasure said, she will begin a teaching fellowship at the University of Maryland School of Law, where she has been an adjunct for the past four years, while continuing to work on cases that require mediation or arbitration. Leasure said that she also hopes to be approved by the state's Court of Appeals to work as judge for up to 80 days a year.

The teaching component is, perhaps, the most important part of her future, Leasure said.

While attending teaching workshops on family issues at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Leasure met attorneys talking about the impact of divorce. A few of them suggested to Leasure, then in her mid-20s, that that she become a lawyer. Already considering going for her MBA, Leasure agreed that having a law degree would help her in the business world.

Smiling, Leasure recalled, "I never had any intention of ever practicing law."

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