Judge Elsbeth Levy Bothe, who in 1952 became one of the UM Carey School of Law’s first women graduates and went on to become a leader in Maryland’s legal community, died on Feb. 27. She was 85.
At a time when women could scarcely find work with law firms or as judicial clerks, Bothe was undaunted and eager to make a difference. She dived into the civil rights movement in Mississippi, and worked for the labor movement in Baltimore, where she met her husband, Bert. She found work with the Legal Aid Bureau and the American Civil Liberties Union. She worked as a criminal defense attorney, handling the most serious of crimes, when the few other women lawyers in Maryland, she said, were doing juvenile and domestic law cases.
In discussing her will to overcome career obstacles, Bothe told the Jewish Women’s Archive, "I always thought it was the best policy not to assume that things were happening to you because you're a woman or a Jew… I've always proceeded on the assumption that it doesn't make any difference to the other person. And I've certainly lived through a time where professional women were second-rate members of the occupation."
After decades of challenging stereotypes and helping to break barriers, she was appointed to the Baltimore Circuit Court in 1978, becoming just the third woman to serve in that role. She served on the bench until 1996, and the clerks she mentored during her career included Gregg Bernstein, elected in 2010 as the city’s state's attorney. Bothe maintained close relationships with her clerks over the decades, hosting annual get-togethers with them at her house.
Constance Putzel, who graduated from Maryland Law in 1945, met Bothe through the Women’s Bar Association shortly after Bothe graduated. They remained friends over the course of their lives, and traveled as recently as last year to visit a mutual friend in New Jersey.
"She was a very warm, generous , brilliant human being," said Putzel.
Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Jeannie Hong called Bothe "an outstanding judge," and recalled her days as a prosecutor being brought into Bothe’s chambers with opposing counsel, where she could speak candidly about the case at hand. "She helped the system work because she helped the attorneys get along," Hong said.
At home, Bothe built a collection of skulls and skeletons, reflecting a fascination with the macabre that helped fuel a friendship with another Baltimore icon, filmmaker John Waters. "I met her when I got arrested for conspiracy to commit indecent exposure for making Mondo Trasho," he told Esquire magazine in 2004. "I called the ACLU. It happened that she answered the phone, and she got me out of jail."
In 2008 Bothe told The Baltimore Sun that Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was among her most influential books, and that she’d always had a taste for true-crime literature. "I tossed out Nancy Drew's juvenile sleuthing stories," she said, "in favor of the New Yorker magazine's marvelously scripted articles called 'Annals of Crime'."
Bothe was also "very feminine," said Putzel, dressing beautifully, favoring hats, and traveling the world.