The friends of Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Harry A. Cole June 6 hailed the late jurist, the first Black to serve on the state’s appeals court and the first Black to be elected to the state senate.
Family and friends, including State Appeals Court Chief Judge Robert Bell, Maryland Court of Special Appeals Judge Arrie W. Davis, gathered at an event sponsored by the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar to reminisce about Cole as a towering figure on Baltimore and state benches and a groundbreaking lawyer, who died in 1999.
His legacy as a judge included writing the unanimous opinion in a major case upholding the right of the state to fund abortions for poor women and issuing the lone dissent in a decision upholding the state’s method of funding public schools.
The library company is one of the nation’s oldest membership-supported law libraries.
“When the library looks for someone to honor, we hope that in addition to being a legendary figure, they also are decent individuals,” said organizer of the event, Joseph Bennett. “Whenever you talk to anyone about Judge Cole they have a sort of reverence in their voice.”
Cole, born Jan. 1, 1921 in Washington, D.C. and spent his childhood in Baltimore, where his family moved following the death of his father, according to information from the Maryland State Archives.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1943 from Morgan State College, where he was class valedictorian, Cole served in the U.S. Army in World War II as a first lieutenant with the Quartermaster Corps.
After his military service, Cole attended the University of Maryland Law School and graduated in 1949.
“He lived, worked, and espoused the importance of integrity and that’s what I remember about him most 25 years later,” said Kevin Shepherd, who served as one of two clerks assigned to Cole from August 1984 to August 1985.
“I have very fond memories of spending a year after law school working with Judge Cole on a day-to-day basis. It was a fantastic experience to work closely with a highly respected judge in the State’s highest court,” said Shepard.
In 1953, Cole became the first African American assistant attorney general and in 1954 he was the first African American elected to a state senate seat in the Maryland General Assembly.
He served as state senator for one term. But Cole saw his ballot box achievement as a victory of reason over race in the battle against the political machine of James H. “Jack” Pollack in Northeast Baltimore . “For years, whenever a qualified candidate of color has campaigned… has attempted to promote the idea that the candidate runs on the basis of race rather than one of qualifications to serve,” he said at the time.
In 1977, Cole was named to Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, where he served until age 70 in 1991, the mandatory age of retirement.
During his career on the bench, Cole fought to equalize per pupil spending in education. He also contested the increase of the mandatory retirement age for judges.
“When dealing with an issue that was of importance- a legal issue or one involving human or civil rights- you had no more fierce an advocate than Harry Cole,” said Chief Judge Robert Bell. “He was one that believed in the future being represented by the young people.”