IN THE NEWSPAPERS and the history books, the "firsts" tend to dominate the biographies of any pioneers in fields previously limited to white males. That is one way to describe Rita Davidson, who died Sunday at her home in Chevy Chase -- but it is no sufficient measure of the woman or her impact on the state of Maryland. Mrs. Davidson, who was 56, was far more than merely the first woman ever named to the state's highest court and the first woman named to a Maryland governor's cabinet; by all accounts, she shook up both places with her courageous -- and often lone -- defenses of people she insisted were not getting a fair shake.

These people were not limited to any one group, either, though more often than not they included the poor, the minorities and those whose individual civil liberties seemed threatened. In local or state government or on the bench, this was no way to win popularity contests. Nevertheless Judge Davidson held strong beliefs -- against capital punishment, against her other six colleagues on the Court of Appeals, who upheld the constitutionality of the state's sobriety checkpoints, and for increases in welfare payments.

"When other little girls were saying they wanted to be nurses or teachers or mommies," Judge Davidson once said, "I was saying I wanted to be a lawyer. I knew it was also a good thing to be a judge." As a lawyer in Washington and active Democrat in Montgomery County, Mrs. Davidson dug in quickly, winning positions on the county's board of appeals and planning board and later becoming Montgomery's first zoning hearing examiner and then secretary of Employment and Social Services in the Mandel administration. As a judge on the Court of Special Appeals, Maryland's second highest tribunal, she helped shape significant decisions involving administrative law, product liability and criminal procedures.

If there is an overriding regret among Judge Davidson's friends and admirers, it is that her death from cancer prevented what should have been many more years of distinguished service. "I do not reject the notion of standing still with something good," she once said, "but I have found very few things in this world that can stand on this premise." When they needed moving, Judge Davidson was there -- and Maryland was made better for her presence.