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LEADERSHIP IN ACTION

HOWARD COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT JUDGE DIANE LEASURE: A STEADY AGENT FOR CHANGE

Nancy C. Lineman
Spring Semester 2010

Not surprisingly, Americans don't think much of lawyers. Actually, they think even less of United States Senators, of whom 58 had law degrees in 2009.[1] Since 1976, the Gallup Organization has conducted an annual poll surveying upwards of a thousand Americans about their perceptions of the honesty and ethics of people in a wide range of professions. The research organization established in 1935 fancies itself as the "world leader in public opinion polling, market research, and management and leadership consulting."[2]

In Gallup's most recent Ethics and Honesty in Professions poll conducted in November of 2009, only 13 percent of Americans surveyed said that they thought the 'honesty and ethical standards' of lawyers was 'very high.' In the minds of Americans, lawyers ranked lower than state governors, journalists and bankers -- and yet -- slightly higher than business executives, HMO managers and car salespeople. Incidentally, only six percent of Americans thought those car sales folks have 'very high' honesty and ethical standards. Members of the legal profession probably don't find much solace in the fact that Americans think more highly of them than car dealers as that's certainly not a ringing endorsement of respect for the legal profession. And how about those nurses? More than 80 percent of Americans surveyed thought nurses have 'very high' honesty and ethical standards. Wow.

But unlike car salespeople, lawyers do have a required code of conduct, spelled out in detail in the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, originally adopted by the American Bar Association in 1908. Among the myriad of rules governing the legal profession, one rule in particular[3] clearly spells out that lawyers must provide "candor towards the tribunal." Well, if the readers of this


Diane Leasure
Howard County Circuit Court Judge

paper are my tribunal, here's my candor: I am a biased writer. Having had Howard County Circuit Court Judge Diane O. Leasure as a professor/instructor for Written and Oral Advocacy at the University of Maryland School of Law in the spring semester of 2009, it was clear to me that there are people in the legal profession who base their decisions and actions on ethics; who consistently demonstrate leadership; and who fundamentally believe that they have a duty to play an active role in our state's democratic process. That's why I was thrilled to participate in our law school's LEAD project: Leadership, Education and Democracy, a two-year program funded by the Fetzer Institute aimed at getting law students to bat around the idea of what leadership and ethics really mean in a legal context. With the current state of public opinion about lawyers at dismally low levels, it sounded like the perfect time to encourage people to take a minute to reflect on these important concepts and how they affect the real practice of law. I asked Judge Leasure if she would be the main topic of my LEAD project and discuss her perspectives on leadership. As I suspected, she was more than happy to help.

Interestingly, the eighth edition of Black's Law Dictionary (commonly known as the law students' Bible) does not include a definition of 'leadership.' Instead, it jumps from lead counsel (the more highly ranked lawyer if two or more are retained) to leading case (a judicial decision that first definitively settled an important legal rule or principle).[4] In a recent e-mail exchange with me, the dictionary's editor-in-chief Bryan Garner acknowledged that while "leadership is exceedingly important in the law -- just as valor and empathy are -- it's not a word with a particular legal meaning or usage."


Bryan Garner
Editor in Chief of Black’s Law Dictionary

Garner, one of the most respected and sought after legal writers in the country, said that "the word 'leadership' is not a legal term any more than the word 'courage' is." Hmmm. Well, okay. So, of course, he makes a good point. He's right -- there is no doctrine of leadership, no Supreme Court case defining what it is or establishing when it's applicable, no common law rules of leadership. Incidentally, a few years back, Garner interviewed eight of the nine Supreme Court Justices about legal writing. As a public service -- even perhaps his own demonstration of leadership -- Garner's legal writing consulting company, LawProse has made those video recordings available to the public.

Now let's take this hypo: let's just say that I convinced Garner that he just had to put a definition of leadership into the next edition of his famous dictionary. Further, assume that he relied upon Judge Leasure to supply him with an early draft of the definition. Leasure would probably start with something like this: "leadership is the ability to effectuate positive change in an organization or group." We actually sat down twice to talk about leadership because the first time we chatted, I (of course) experienced a dramatic recording equipment malfunction and had to ask her to do the whole interview over again. There's nothing like the ghastly feeling you get when you have to explain to a busy sitting judge -- who has already been so generous with her time -- that you didn't know how to properly operate the tape recorder the first time around. Anyway, we held our first chat in her chambers located in the Howard County Circuit Court in historic Ellicott City, Maryland. The second time, we met at the Thurgood Marshall Law Library. Our full, properly recorded discussion -- where I temporarily re-live my former life as a news reporter -- is available here.

What's most striking about Leasure is her laid-back, friendly and warm presence. Can a woman this powerful, this experienced, this smart, this involved in so many aspects of the legal community be this genuinely charming, unassuming and approachable? I mean, c'mon. This is the judge who presided over the Linda Tripp wiretap case during a tumultuous time of presidential

[photo, Parris N. Glendening, Maryland Governor]
Parris N. Glendening
Former Maryland Governor

impeachment in the late 90s. Appointed to the Howard County Circuit Court by former Governor Parris N. Glendening in 1995 to fill a vacancy on the bench, Leasure is indeed this friendly and this real. But, don't be fooled. She's as nice as she is tough. According to a story[5] published last year by the Howard County Times, Leasure found a Columbia woman guilty of multiple counts of animal cruelty and sentenced her to a jail term when more than 50 cats died as a result of her neglect. The same month, Leasure sentenced a prominent North Carolina drag racer to nine years in prison for pulling a gun on a woman in a Columbia road rage incident. In February, she sentenced a man to 63 years in prison for setting fire to his ex-girlfriend's townhouse while her daughter slept inside. Sadly, the daughter ended up with severe burns and injuries.

A Quick Sketch of Judge Leasure's Personal Background and History

The oldest of six children born to Charlie and Mae Orlick in June of 1952, she was born in Cumberland, Maryland and shortly thereafter the family moved to LaVale, a town outside of Cumberland with a population of just under 5,000. Her father is a retired chemist who worked his entire career at a chemical company right across the border in West Virginia. Her mother is a homemaker. Leasure says her parents were an instrumental force in helping her to foster her leadership skills and initiative. They instilled in her the value and importance of developing a strong work ethic. "Being in the oldest child role, whether by default or by desire, you really develop some leadership roles early on within the family," explained Leasure. In her experience, the desire to be a leader is intrinsic, but the skills necessary to be a good leader can be taught and learned. "I think it's critically important for a leader to lead by example," said Leasure. "I think people want leaders who model and emulate [the very qualities that put them in a leadership position in the first place]." Her parents certainly agree. Reached by telephone during a recent trip to North Carolina, Charles and Mae Orlick recalled how their daughter was very active, driven and committed from a young age. Leasure was a resident advisor in college. "She would tell me all about how she had to shoo the boys out of the all-girls dorm," remembered Charles, with a laugh. Reflecting on the totality of her career thus far, he said, "It's really remarkable how much she has done and how involved she gets; and for her it's never just in name only. If she is involved with something, you can bet she's going to attend meetings, contribute and be an active part of any decision-making process."

In 1974, Leasure attended Virginia Tech for two years and ultimately earned her undergraduate degree in human behavior and development at Glassboro State College, now called Rowan University. After receiving a master's degree, also in human behavior and development, from Drexel University, Leasure attended Rutgers University School of Law and was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1982 and immediately began her career as an associate at Fossett and Brugger, a firm in Greenbelt, Maryland focused on land use, business litigation and construction disputes. Certainly, these were not areas of the law well known for attracting women litigators and when she started at the firm, Leasure was the only woman who litigated cases. Incidentally, she had her first litigation experience only a week after she passed the bar exam. She was victorious in her first two trials, both dealt with contract matters. But those early victories were not enough to shield her from some pretty obvious instances of gender bias both inside and outside the courtroom. "It was different back then," recalls Leasure. "People weren't used to having a woman as their lead counsel for cases that went to trial." She vividly remembers an instance where her opposing counsel made inappropriate gender-focused comments when she won the case. The judge took note and instructed her opposing counsel to pick up a copy of a newly commissioned report on gender bias[6] and read it carefully. "At the time, I remember being so impressed with the judge because he actually said something very serious to the opposing counsel about the inappropriateness of the remarks," said Leasure. The 1989 report resulted from a commission that was appointed by former Chief Judge Robert Murphy and Maryland State Bar Association president Roger Titus. The commission was charged with "eliminating gender bias in Maryland's judicial system."[7] The report was actually authored in part by University of Maryland School of Law's own Professor Karen Czapanskiy.

Leasure also recalled a particularly egregious judge who repeatedly referred to counsel as "gentlemen" throughout the trial. Well into the trial, the judged asked her how to properly pronounce her last name. He then quipped, "Are you married?" The kicker: she was eight months pregnant at the time. Leasure acknowledges that pregnancy and the desire to raise children may have taken some of the handful of other women litigators off the highly desirable partnership track. But in 1988, she was named a principal at the firm and became chair of the firm's litigation practice group that year. Leasure became active in the bar association despite the fact that it wasn't so easy for women to assume significant leadership roles in the mainstream bar associations.  "I have always felt that bar association work is vitally important to a lawyer's professional growth," said Leasure. "And I think there are many, many more opportunities for women lawyers now to be able to assume leadership positions -- and I think they should certainly take advantage of those opportunities as often as possible." She went on to develop new litigation practice areas for the firm -- including franchise law and employment law -- and she continued to handle construction, contract and real estate disputes.

Chief Judge
Robert Bell
Maryland Court of Appeals

In 1995, Leasure was the first woman appointed to the Howard County Circuit Court. In 2002, Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert Bell appointed her to serve as the Fifth Circuit and County Administrative Judge, again the first woman to serve in the administrative role. "That really made my mom proud," reflected Leasure. She and her husband Ralph Leasure, a vice-president of a medical biotech company have one son. "I'm totally enamored with him," she admits with a laugh. Kevin Leasure, 24, is a project engineer at a Bethesda-based commercial construction firm. He will start a part-time MBA program in August of 2010.

In 2004, the Maryland Daily Record honored Leasure with the Leadership in Law award, created to draw attention to the many Maryland legal professionals -- lawyers and judges -- whose dedication to their occupation and to their communities deserves particular recognition. Last year, Leasure was nominated and named one of Maryland's Top 100 Women by the Daily Record. In addition to her work on the bench, Leasure is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and teaches Written and Oral Advocacy and Children and Divorce. She is currently working on a book about children and divorce, as many of the cases that come before her revolve around difficult custody disputes. She is also the current chair of the Conference of Circuit Court Judges. While there is no formal "chief judge" of the Circuit Court, Leasure essentially is treated as such in her role as conference chair. She is the first woman to hold the position and is a member of Chief Judge Bell's judicial cabinet. She assists him with reasoning through various and sundry judiciary-related policy decisions.

Judge Leasure on Retention v. Contested Elections for Circuit Court Judges

When asked to reflect upon her own theories and practices on leadership, it's clear that Leasure has a deep passion for involvement and a commitment to change. And like her parents said, she's not shy about rolling up


Douglas Gansler
Maryland Attorney General

her sleeves and getting involved in the depth of an issue. During the 2010 90-day session of the Maryland General Assembly, Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler tapped Leasure to join him and other members of the judicial branch to propose an amendment to the Maryland Constitution to alter the way the state holds elections for Circuit Court judges. Under current Maryland law, Circuit Court judges must participate in contested elections every 15 years-- unlike district court judges who are confirmed by the Maryland State Senate every 10 years, or judges on the courts of appeals who have retention elections. Gansler and his coalition advocated replacing contested elections for Circuit Court judges with retention elections where the electorate would be asked whether or not the judges up for election deserved to be retained. If a simple majority of voters in a respective county voted against retention, the governor would have the authority to name a new Circuit Court judge to fill the seat. For a comprehensive explanation of current law and Gansler's proposed law, read the fiscal note prepared for the bill by a non-partisan legislative analyst at the Department of Legislative Services. In addition, The American Bar Association has written an extensive position paper on the contested vs. retention elections.

Because Gansler's legislative proposal had to be in the form of a constitutional amendment, the measure would have been put to voter referendum in the November 2010 general election prior to its implementation. Gansler even wooed former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to testify on the bill's behalf in Annapolis,[8] but the proposal failed to get enough votes in the Maryland House of Delegates Judiciary Committee. That committee is comprised primarily of attorneys, well known to be leery of what they perceive to be quick changes in the law. Incidentally, Justice O'Connor has recently launched an interactive new website to help make teaching civics to young people "informative and exciting" and is complete with interactive online games for teachers, students and families.

"Judges aren't natural politicians," says Leasure as she explains her reasoning for wanting to replace contested elections with retention elections. If she decides to run again for Circuit Court judge, Leasure will do so in 2012. "It really gets difficult around fundraising because the people who regularly contribute to a judicial campaign are the lawyers and law firms that regularly appear in the courts," said Leasure. To ensure her impartiality, Leasure makes it a point not to review the names of campaign finance donors to her slate. Still, she acknowledges that there are challenges when it comes to fundraising, especially at events where she obviously knows people are there because they either purchased a ticket themselves or they got a ticket from someone else who made the purchase. "I think it leads to the public perception that judges can be bought, but that is not reality," she said. In her testimony during the public hearings on the proposal, Leasure focused on the difficulty of being a sitting judge and having to raise money to fund a campaign. "Frankly, it is just extremely uncomfortable to see an attorney at a judicial fundraiser and then have that attorney appear before you in court."

But it's also the actual campaigning against an opponent that can be challenging as well. Judges take an oath to be fair and impartial and render decisions that are unbiased and without prejudice, and consequently, there is little they can say -- other than that they promise to be fair and impartial -- on the campaign trail, Leasure explained. "When an opponent who is obviously not yet a judge, makes a campaign promise to be 'tough on crime,' there is really little I can say in return." She says the complexity of campaigning for a judicial position can have the result of frustrating the public who may not understand the ethical prohibitions that judges have and, as a result, make them think a judge is perhaps hiding something. If Gansler tries to push the constitutional amendment next year, Leasure says she's on board to help him again, just as she did during the 2010 legislative session.

Judge Leasure on Decorum in the Courtroom

But to Leasure, leadership doesn't always have to come in the form of heavy involvement in policy discussions, delivering testimony in the state capital or serving on time-consuming committees of the judiciary. She believes that the fundamentals of leadership are rooted in the practice of simple skills such as the ability to listen, to stay measured, calm and respectful in the courtroom -- but most of all, being courteous to everyone involved in the judicial process. Leasure is known by many in the legal field to be professional and measured at virtually all times. She does not tolerate inappropriate behavior from those being represented by legal counsel -- or for that matter -- by legal counsel themselves. That's likely why the Maryland State Bar Association honored Leasure with the prestigious Anselm Sodaro Judicial Civility Award in 2008. The annual award is given to one sitting judge in Maryland who best exemplifies the level of civility set by

Anselm Sodaro
Judge Anselm Sodaro

nationally renowned Maryland Circuit Court Judge Anselm Sodaro, who died in 2002 at the age 91. Sodaro was also Chief Judge from 1975 to 1980. "His span as a judge is consistently noted for his courtesy and graciousness toward civil litigants, criminal defendants, witnesses, victims, bailiffs and each of the attorneys who addressed his court. He may have best exemplified what it means to have 'order in the court.'"[9] Leasure thinks attorneys just starting out in the field of litigation can benefit from not getting emotionally wrapped up in a case. "It's so important to be a good advocate for your client, but I've seen the quality of representation decline when an attorney gets more emotionally invested than he or she should and then loses sight of what is really fair and objective," advised Leasure. She's seen that behavior lead to attorneys on both sides of the case to be uncivil toward each other and other professionals in the courtroom. "It simply doesn't advance their cause or their case to be acting like that."

When Leasure believes anyone is acting improperly in her courtroom, she will typically take a short recess to give people an opportunity to compose themselves. "I always give them the benefit of the doubt. It's possible that they just aren't aware of how their actions and words are being received and after a few minutes, it's usually the case that tempers are not as flared," she said. Interestingly, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit publishes a little paper on proper decorum in the courtroom. Especially amusing is the part that reads "inappropriate facial gestures or exaggerated gesticulating is forbidden." Hm. Perhaps we all watch a little too many courtroom dramas on television and need to be reminded that real courtroom experience is quite different than that on the small screen?

Judge Leasure on Advice to Law Students

As hard as Leasure seems to work, she doesn't think an overworked attorney -- or an overworked law student -- is a good thing. "You have to make sure you have enough balance in your life to achieve the quality of life you're working toward." And she too lives by the simple credo 'do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.' "It really is the golden rule," Leasure muses. At the end of the day, Leasure hopes students will engage in community service, pro bono work and make sure that their lives and contributions to the legal profession make a clear difference. "In some way, shape or form, it needs to matter that we lived and that we contributed something."


John Paul Stevens
Supreme Court Justice

In the famous (or infamous, as the case may be) United States Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore,[10] Justice Stevens' dissent included a famous quote "it is confidence in the men and women who administer the judicial system that is the true backbone of the rule of law." Leasure wholeheartedly agrees. "I certainly strive to make sure my decisions are well-reasoned and fit the facts and circumstances of each case that comes before me, but there are always going to be people with a different viewpoint." There are some citizens, she says, who embrace the traditional 'throw the book at them' mentality. But then there are others who favor rehabilitation and compassion for people, especially those who may be suffering with a drug addiction. "Everyone is entitled to their own philosophical view, but as long as there is transparency in my decisions and I provide clear reasoning, people generally understand where I'm coming from." In this biased writer's opinion, the people of Maryland should have every confidence in the decisions and rulings issued by Howard County Circuit Court Judge Diane O. Leasure. Every day she embraces and exemplifies the true meaning of leadership. Too bad every attorney doesn't embody the true leadership and ethical qualities of Judge Leasure. Heck, if they did, our legal profession would surely be giving those nurses a run for their money in the realm of public opinion.

 

About the LEAD Paper's Author

Nancy C. Lineman Communications DirectorNancy C. Lineman has completed her second of four years at the University of Maryland School of Law's evening program. A College Park resident, Lineman has 13 years of professional experience in government operations and communications. Currently, she serves as communications director at the Maryland Department of Human Resources -- the state's social services agency -- where she and her team are responsible for strategic communications, media relations, maintaining the agency's website and graphic design. She is interested in merging her professional communications experience with her growing legal knowledge. She expects to graduate in May 2012. Her e-mail address is nlineman@yahoo.com. NOTE: It's highly likely that many of the citations for this paper are not exactly correct, and frankly, the writer is just fine with that.


[1] Congressional Research Service Report, 1999.

[3] Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 3.3: Candor Towards the Tribunal.

[4] Black's Law Dictionary 906 (8th ed. 2004).

[5] Mike Santa Rita, Leasure a Voice for Children in Circuit Court, Howard County Times, May 6, 2009.

[6] Czapanskiy, Karen. Report of the Special Joint Committee on Gender Bias in the Courts. Annapolis, MD: The
Special Joint Committee on Gender Bias in the Courts. (KFM 1611.7 R46 1989).

[8] Annie Linskey, Ex-Justice O'Connor Favors End to Electing Judges, Baltimore Sun, March 4, 2010.

[9] Karl Albrecht, Social Intelligence, the New Science of Success 26 (Lisa Shannon, ed., Jossey-Bass, 2006).

[10] Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98.


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Copyright © 2014, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. All Rights Reserved