More than 30 years ago, in 1987, Congress passed legislation designating March as Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate women’s contributions and achievements in the United States. In the Anne Arundel County courthouse, we have a remarkable number of women serving the judicial system. For the first time in the history of our county, the majority of circuit court judges, seven out of 12, are women.
The Honorable Laura S. Ripken has served as the administrative judge of the circuit court since 2015, as well as the chief administrative judge of the fifth circuit, overseeing Carroll, Howard and Anne Arundel County courts. A former child abuse prosecutor for 19 years, she also led the Hate Crimes Prosecution Unit before being appointed deputy state’s attorney in 2006. Judge Ripken counts those who came before her as her greatest inspiration in her professional trajectory.
“There are many who blazed the trail for women before me such as family law practitioners, civil attorneys, criminal defense attorneys, members of the Public Defender’s Office and State’s Attorney’s Office who showed me, and other women at the time, that we could be successful in the practice of law,” said Judge Ripken. “The state’s attorney at the time, Frank Weathersbee, was very encouraging and treated everyone equally, which allowed me to be successful and flourish, so becoming the first female deputy state’s attorney in Anne Arundel County felt like a natural fit and natural path.”
Last year, in 2019, the Honorable Elizabeth Morris was appointed by Governor Larry Hogan to the circuit court bench. As a first-time judicial applicant, Judge Morris had personal and professional experiences that prepared her for the significant milestone to come - as the county’s first African American woman to serve on the circuit court bench.
“I quickly learned as a young lawyer how meaningful it was to see diversity in positions of power when an older African American woman paralegal approached me shortly after I began my new job,” Judge Morris recalled. “She thanked me for accepting the attorney position and revealed that she had worked for that particular employer for a long time and I was the first person of color that had ever been hired as an attorney in that office. She told me that she did not think that it was even possible for a person of color to be anything more than support staff until I was hired. She told me my mere presence had given her hope that the time had finally come for equality.”
In her current position, Judge Morris has learned that being a public figure comes with both numerous responsibilities and increased attention.
“It has been deeply humbling to hear from members in the community that my appointment gives them hope for a better future or inspired their daughter to become a judge. As I have begun to settle into my new reality, I now recognize making history is less about me as an individual and more about being an inspiration to others,” she added.
Judges Pamela Alban, Alison Asti, Stacy McCormack, Donna Schaeffer and Cathleen Vitale round out the remaining judges serving on the circuit court bench. Their legal backgrounds are varied, but they all represent the progress women have made in the legal community from a time when women judges were more of a rarity.
When I began my legal career in 1990, there were no women judges serving on our circuit court. While there were a handful of female prosecutors, there was only one in a leadership role. She inspired many now-successful lawyers, magistrates and judges because she served as our de facto mentor and role model, whether she wanted to or not. Now, more than half of my prosecutors (and my deputy state’s attorney) are female. Like Judge Morris, I knew I would impact others just by being in the position. How could I inspire others as the first woman elected state’s attorney in 96 years? It wasn’t by sitting at my desk and issuing policy, but by continuing to try the tough cases in the courtroom and (hopefully) inspiring my prosecutors to fight for victims of crime, protect the community and ensure fairness and justice always.
It is truly an honor to work in a courthouse where so many women are committed to our community and the higher calling of public service. Here’s to Women’s History Month — may we all be inspired by those who have blazed the trail for us, and may we inspire those who will follow.