Ever since Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died 11 days ago at age 87 of pancreatic cancer, I have become engrossed in this legal giant’s life and career. My wife and I watched “On Basis of Sex,” the movie about Ginsburg’s career to remove barriers to equal rights based on a person’s gender. And we also watched the “RBG” documentary, which confirmed for the most part the Hollywood version.
Memories then began to flow about one of my mother’s dear friends in Baltimore, Judge Mary Arabian. They were both determined, goal-oriented women.” Judge Mary” was a frequent guest in my parents’ home.
Like Ginsburg, whose father was a bookkeeper, Arabian also rose from modest circumstances as the daughter of an Armenian rug repairer.
Arabian too shattered some traditions. She became the first woman named to the Municipal Court in Baltimore. This judicial setting is akin to today’s District Court. She later was promoted to the Supreme Bench, which is comparable to today’s Circuit Court.
I recall that Arabian, a graduate of the University of Maryland Law School, telling a story about how she could not get a job with a top law firm, being asked rhetorically by a partner at one of these firms: “Mary, what would one of our clients think?” Her application was rejected.
According to the Ginsburg film, the former Supreme Court justice encountered the same reaction after graduating from the Columbia University Law School following two years at the top of her class at Harvard Law School.
Both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Mary Arabian could only have felt insulted and demeaned by this typical reaction at the time.
Judge Mary eventually got a job at a law firm that included William Donald Schaefer, who eventually became mayor of Baltimore, governor of Maryland and state comptroller.
When Arabian retired from the bench in 1990, some blue-chip law firms in Baltimore invited her to join, if only for her name to be on the letterhead. She declined.
A year after being named to the Supreme Bench, Arabian had to run for election for a 10-year term. Most judges intensely dislike engaging in the often messy political process and possibly hindering their objective judgments. But Judge Mary had the good judgment to seek help from Leah Freedlander, who was well-versed in city politics. Early on, when my mother urged her friend to campaign in the powerful union halls, she resisted, concerned that she might run into people whom she had sentenced. Though I suspect that my equally resolute mother understood Mary’s reasoning, she asked: “Well, Mary, do you want to win?”
Judge Mary reluctantly went along. She knew better to question my mother’s political savvy.
No movies will be made about Judge Mary Arabian, whose rise to judicial prominence happened on a local stage. However, her being named as the first woman on the Municipal Court was rather significant in 1961. I regret that I never asked the judge how she felt about her precedent-setting appointment. I suspect she may have changed the subject.
Circling back to Judge Ginsburg, I must concede that I find disturbing the opinions of some that she should have stepped down as her illnesses increased and worsened. The thinking goes that should she have retired after an illustrious career, President Obama could have named a younger, still liberal justice and avoided the current nomination of a conservative justice and woman who will feel no obligation to side with her predecessor’s opinions.
Why do I find this thinking bothersome? Because I never heard similar retrospectives about aging men who faced medical challenges. Also, had Judge Ginsburg retired for political purposes to give Obama the opportunity to appoint a younger person, she would have placed a political stamp on the Supreme Court. Some may say that already happened after the Bush v. Gore decision in 2000.
Nothing I have read or heard convinces me that Judge Ginsburg was unable mentally or physically to perform her duties as an associate Supreme Court justice despite several bouts with cancer. Her opinions in the majority or in dissent were well-written and well-reasoned, as well as respected by her peers on the nation’s highest court.
Judge Mary Arabian broke the glass ceiling in Baltimore. Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg helped remove legal barriers as a civil rights attorney, winning five out of six cases before the Supreme Court. Her intellect and character shone brightly on a court once dominated completely by men.
Mary Arabian was a towering figure to me. As was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Each combined abundant brain power and effective willfulness.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.