Among the field of applicants for the soon-to-be vacant seat on Maryland’s Court of Appeals, Judge Shirley Watts stands apart—she is the only African American up for consideration by the Judicial Nominating Commission, which is scheduled to meet June 20 to decide on its recommendations for Gov. Martin O’Malley.

“If she is chosen it would be very historic—she would the first African-American female to be appointed to the Court of Appeals,” said Nicole Barmore, secretary of the Monumental City Bar Association, Baltimore’s oldest and largest specialty bar association, of which Watts is a member.

But many in Maryland’s legal sphere say Watts has already distinguished herself in many other ways throughout her varied career, especially in her acumen and her grasp of the vagaries of the law.

“You have a lot of jurists of average intelligence—she is not one of them,” said Warren Brown, one of Baltimore’s eminent criminal defense lawyers for the past 28 years. “I’ve had a number of cases with her and she acquitted herself quite well.”

Watts joins her colleagues, Judges Stuart Ross Berger and Albert Joseph Matricciani Jr., from the state’s Court of Special Appeals; Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge W. Michel Pierson; and Baltimore attorney Mary Natalie McSherry as candidates to fill the slot that will open July 6 when Chief Judge Robert M. Bell reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Bell’s successor, many have said, will have large shoes to fill.

“Judge Bell is a special person…. It’s going to be hard for anybody to repeat his legacy,” Barmore said.

Watts’ supporters say she is up to the task, however.

Famed Baltimore attorney Dwight Pettit said he has known Judge Watts for a long time and was one of her original supporters when she ran for Baltimore’s Circuit Court seat.

“She would be an excellent choice for Governor O’Malley to make,” Pettit said. “I’ve appeared before her many times and I find her to be a judge of a great demeanor—very patient and courteous.”

He added, “In her rulings—we have not always agreed on everything, but they have been progressive, and that’s something the entire community, not just African Americans, should be able to support. We need a judge who is committed to protecting fairness and equity for all citizens.”

While she is “progressive,” Brown agreed, Watts is far from being an “ideologue” and is “intellectually honest.”

“She goes wherever the law takes her,” he said. “She’s known to be fair and honest in her decisions.”

Judge Michele D. Hotten, of the Court of Special Appeals, said all three of her colleagues under consideration are eminently qualified.

“It’s the hardest working court so you have to have a very strong work ethic,” she said of the chamber, which has exclusive initial appellate jurisdiction over any reviewable judgment, decree, order, or other action of a circuit court or an orphans’ court in the state.

Speaking specifically about Watts, however—by no means an endorsement of any candidate—Hotten said her peer has proven to be a wise and empathetic judge, among other qualities, during her short tenure on the court.

“She’s extremely intelligent, hard-working, well-prepared and organized, and appreciates the fact that the cases impact people’s lives,” Hotten said, later adding, “She has a great understanding of human nature.”

On Jan. 27, 2011, Watts followed Hotten onto the Court of Special Appeals, becoming the second African-American woman to join the judicial body. Said Gov. O’Malley at the time of his reasons for nominating her as the successor to retiring Judge Arrie W. Davis: “Judge Watts is widely respected for her intelligence, high ethical standards, and commitment to the rule of law. These qualities will serve her well on our state’s intermediate appellate court.”

The governor also praised Watts’ widespread experience.

A Baltimore native, Watts obtained degrees from Howard University and Rutgers University School of Law. After practicing law at a private firm, Watts then served as a prosecutor, a federal public defender, and federal administrative law judge in California, Pennsylvania and Maryland and a trial judge in Baltimore City Circuit Court before joining the Court of Special Appeals.

The experience on both sides of the court’s aisles made her fair and impervious to the courtroom antics of prosecutors and defense lawyers, Brown, the criminal defense attorney, said.

“She’s been around,” he said, which made it hard to get anything past her in court.
Hotten said Watts’ time in trial and administrative courts proved to be “great training ground for appellate court.”

“She has a great appreciation of what trial judges have to deal with and is versed in the mechanics of evidence and procedure at the trial court level,” Hotten said. “ she will bring all her experience to bear if she is privileged to be recommended by the Judicial Nominating Commission and then appointed by the governor.”

Despite her many distinctions, Watts has been very gracious with younger members of their association, Barmore said, and has generously shared of her knowledge and experience.

“She’s very open,” she said. “She’s a great mentor to young lawyers in the area.”

The bar association has not yet endorsed any of the candidates—Barmore heads the committee that interviews candidates and makes recommendations to judicial nominating bodies. But her history augers well for Watts, Barmore said.

“She received high marks from the review committee before ,” the younger attorney said. “If she’s able to do what she did before, it could mean great things for her.”

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO