There were no lofty ideas behind Marcella A. Holland’s plans–no notions of a grand life and all the power that would come along with being a judge in an urban center.
The truth is, the title “judge” was included nowhere in the path she saw for her own life.
In fact, if her wildest dreams as a 10-year-old were to ever come true, she would end up following the lead of “Della Street,” the popular legal secretary on the hit show “Perry Mason.”
The only problem was that by the time Holland hit her early 20s she had already reached and surpassed her goal. In doing so, she also proved she could take on the duties of her superiors with ease.
Today, more than three decades since her humble roots in the legal system began to take hold, Baltimore City Circuit Court Administrative Judge Holland, the first Black woman to hold the position in Maryland, is closing in on the transition to retirement.
“I reached this decision two years ago,” Holland told the AFRO. “I think 10 years is a long time to be in charge and sometimes you just need a change.”
Holland said she hopes her decade of tackling budget problems, overseeing personnel, and bringing the circuit courts into the digital era will show what the multi-faced Baltimore judicial system is really about.
“We are a large court in an urban area with a lot of problems and very little resources. It’s a difficult court to sit on as a judge because you want to do so much and it’s not all about calling balls and strikes,” she said. “So many of our operations span beyond Baltimore City. We are a leader for mediation in the state. We handle all of the asbestos cases in the state. We get adoption cases from all over because people can file wherever they choose to, and all businesses–including hospitals and banks–file suit here.”
From family court to criminal cases, Holland has done it all. She got her start as a legal secretary after a short stint in business school and quickly made a name for herself working with in Washington, D.C. for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. It wasn’t long before private law firms came knocking.
“I noticed the associates were getting paid a lot of money, but I was doing their work. I was doing the research, I was writing the memos and drafting the bills,” she said.
Holland turned her attention towards college and a law degree. By 1983 the Cooksville, Md. native had degrees from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Maryland School of Law.
Thirteen years into her time as a prosecutor in the Economic Crimes Unit, Holland was sworn in as an associate judge for the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.
“It really doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you end up where should be, but it’s a much easier road if you take the normal path of high school, college, and graduate school,” she said.
By 2001, she was working the domestic docket. And then came the call she said she never expected: Chief Judge Robert M. Bell had named her administrative judge. Holland was sworn in on Nov. 8, 2003.
“She interned for me while she was in law school and I had watched her from there,” said Bell. “When she came to the bench, I watched how she conducted herself and how she was able to do the job with ease. She always had a leadership quality about her and she was a natural, as far as I was concerned.”
While Holland has set a level tone inside the courtroom, she and her superiors agree that some of her biggest challenges have had nothing to do with the bench and everything to do with the edifices that make up the 8th Judicial Circuit.
“She has carried the ball on trying to get a new courthouse. That’s going to be something that will be remembered,” said Bell. “If it is successful, it will be largely because of what she has done to lay the foundation.”
In 2003, a needs assessment of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse and Courthouse East found that the buildings were not in compliance with the state building code for electricity, plumbing, fire safety, and a myriad of other problems.
“We have tried to make it better,” said Holland. “We got a grant from the state and now have surveillance cameras, optometers, card access for sensitive areas, and much more in the way of technology.”
Even with all of the upgrades, Holland said both buildings need improvement.
Inmates are sometimes transported through the halls with jurors, witnesses, and the general public, a major issue for Holland in a city where witness intimidation is a concern.
Upon retirement, Holland said that she will continue to press for a new courthouse. She will balance bar duties with the work she does with several associations.
Holland will spend her last day as a sitting judge, Nov. 30, finalizing adoptions.
“It’s going to be my last time to sit and I want to go out with the best feeling in the world,” she said.