When Richard Schifter delivers the funeral eulogy today for his former law school classmate, friend and political ally Rita Davidson, he won't be searching for any grand statements about public service or political philosophy. Instead, he'll remember the last words the 56-year-old Davidson, judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, spoke to him.
"We made some mistakes," Davidson told Schifter, a former Democratic Central Committee chairman in Montgomery County, last week. "But on the whole, we did good."
Fellow judges, lawyers, political allies and friends repeated similar words yesterday about the lone woman on the state's highest court who was the consistent champion of liberal causes throughout her six-year tenure. A search begins today for her replacement, but few will be able to fill her slot, they say, with the humor, strength and determination that Davidson used as a frequent lone-dissenter in cases involving civil rights.
"In issues involving social issues, she was very much a progressive liberal," said Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, pointing to her opposition in cases involving the death penalty.
Since 1979, Davidson "made no secret of her point of view," in about nine cases in which the death penalty was argued, Murphy said. Most recently, she disagreed with the majority of the court in another issue involving civil rights -- sobriety checks conducted by state troopers on motorists, a practice upheld by Davidson's colleagues.
"She was a strong woman," Murphy said. "She felt she was right and the fact that she was in the minority didn't take away from the strength of her views."
A replacement for Davidson will be nominated by a statewide commission of lawyers and judges and then selected by the governor. Davidson's death, from cancer, came as a surprise to her colleagues. Authorities said yesterday the search for a replacement could take as long as three months.
The replacement, according to state statute, will have to live in Montgomery, Frederick, Washington, Allegany or Garrett counties, the district Davidson represented after her appointment to Maryland's highest court in 1978, as well as during her previous six years as a judge for the Court of Special Appeals.
A Yale Law School graduate, Davidson practiced in the District of Columbia and later in Montgomery County. She became active in politics there in the 1960s, becoming one of the founding members of a grass-roots Democratic movement that pushed for "clean government with no conflict of interests."
She was the county's first zoning hearing examiner, a member of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the first woman cabinet member in the state. She served on former governor Marvin Mandel's cabinet in the post of secretary of Employment and Social Service from 1970 to 1972.
During her years on the Court of Appeals, attorneys knew when they faced Davidson, they would hear a barrage of questions still sympathetic to those causes.
"I loved to argue before her," said Barbara Mello, legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "She had a mind like a hot wire and she was able to penetrate immediately through clouds of obfuscation to get to the heart of the issues. . . . Sometimes acerbic, sometimes bawdy. Always delightful. She was a hell of a lady."