PORTLAND — Caroline Duby Glassman, the first woman appointed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, died Wednesday at Maine Medical Center at the age of 90 after a brief illness.
Glassman had a career in which she dissolved gender barriers and helped mentor other women in the profession.
She was nominated for the state Supreme Court by Gov. Joseph Brennan, a Democrat, in 1983 and reappointed by Gov. John McKernan, a Republican, for a second seven-year term.
Leigh Saufley, the woman who is now the court’s chief justice, described Glassman as an “absolute force of nature” in Maine’s legal community.
“Everyone in the legal community knew Caroline Glassman because she was classy and very strong and a very articulate woman,” said Saufley, who was appointed by Gov. Angus King to fill the vacancy left when Glassman retired from the court in 1997.
“On issues of access to justice and how the system should respond … she was tenacious, and many people would refer to her as stubborn because she would not let go of an issue if she thought it was important to making sure the truth of a case was actually addressed,” Saufley said.
When Glassman attended Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Ore., she was one of only two women at the school. Her father discouraged her from attending.
“Very unsupportive is being polite. He did not think she should be in law school and would not pay for it,” said Dale Gavin, an attorney at Thompson & Bowie in Portland who was Glassman’s first law clerk and a close friend.
Glassman worked as a waitress to put herself through law school and graduated summa cum laude. Still, she was offered only a legal secretary position after passing the bar in Oregon.
She eventually went to work for a title insurance company before being hired in San Francisco by the firm of Melvin Belli, a flamboyant litigator who represented many high-profile clients in the entertainment industry.
She married Harry P. Glassman in 1953 and they had one son, Max, who now lives in Virginia. The family moved to Maine in 1963, when Harry Glassman became a professor at the University of Maine School of Law. He served on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court from 1979 until his death in 1981.
Daniel Wathen, who served with Glassman on the Supreme Court, met her when she was a stay-at-home mom, shortly after the family moved to Maine and he was attending the law school.
Eventually, he became a trial judge and Glassman appeared in front of him as a lawyer.
In private practice, Glassman focused on family law and criminal defense.
“She was a zealous advocate. … She was very serious, very focused on what she was doing,” Wathen said. “She had a way of sort of dismissing any attempt of making something light.
“She had steely eyes,” Wathan said. “She was always an attractive woman – silver-haired, strong features, strong chin, a fairly low and husky voice. She had no trouble being heard.”
That forcefulness did not diminish when she joined the state’s highest court.
“She studied every case from beginning to end,” Wathen said. “She mastered all of the details and facts. She was sort of a detail person, I was sort of a big-picture person. Even though we were very different and we fought a lot at times – disagreed in chambers – we recognized we complemented each other.”
And after a long day, they would occasionally head to Three Dollar Dewey’s or some other Old Port pub for a pint of Guinness and a cigarette, he recalled fondly.
Glassman helped open up the practice of law through her own career, Wathen said.
“I think she made gender irrelevant,” he said. “She was definitely always a lady, and there’s a difference, but you judged her and those who followed her based upon their competence and performance rather than any thought of, ‘There’s a role for women and a role for men.’”
Glassman’s appointment to the Supreme Court – there were three female trial judges at the time – made her a role model and mentor for many women in the legal profession.
“As a female going into the profession … it was really nice to have someone who had made it in the profession very successfully, to know it was possible and a good way to spend your career,” said Gavin, who watched Glassman’s swearing-in 30 years ago.
Glassman worked hard and expected her staff to do the same. In 14 years on the court, she never missed an oral argument, Gavin said.
“Some judges don’t ask many questions and just let lawyers drone on and on, but Caroline was not like that. She asked questions,” Gavin said. “She knew where the weaknesses were in each side’s arguments.”
Glassman wanted the seat on the Supreme Court because, as an appellate court, it helps to define the law.
Saufley, the chief justice, said, “She worried about the country itself moving toward longer and longer (criminal) sentences. She worried about making sure the criminal process was extremely fair and people didn’t rush to judgment.”
In 1972, Glassman represented the consumer-protection group COMBAT in its battle against a proposed rate hike by Central Maine Power Co. In 1977, she wrote a report for the Maine Commission for Women that focused on the legal inequities faced by widows, wives and divorcees.
She also played a central role in a controversial case in 1985, when she overturned a lower court’s decision to revoke the bail of Linwood Reeves, a convicted rapist in South Berwick who was appealing his case. She later revised her order, saying Reeves was entitled to bail with additional conditions to ensure the safety of the community.
Glassman’s dedication and work ethic didn’t ebb after she retired from the court in 1997.
She became active in the Russian American Rule of Law Consortium, a group of legal scholars and judges in Portland that worked with counterparts in Russia to expose them to the American legal system. She also volunteered at the Iris Network, reading and recording local newspaper stories for the visually impaired.
Glassman went to the gym three times a week until March of this year, when she moved into Village Crossings, an assisted-living facility in Cape Elizabeth, to avoid the steep stairs of her longtime home on Thomas Street in Portland’s West End.
In 1993, the Women’s Law section of the Maine State Bar Association created the Caroline Duby Glassman Award, given annually to a female lawyer who has worked to advance the position of women in the community or in the legal profession.
“She broke the glass ceiling on the bench with such style, grace and passion that she carved out a path for so many of us that followed,” Saufley said. “Many of us have lost a good friend, and a world has lost a stalwart supporter of individual rights.”
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at [email protected]