Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Rita C. Davidson (1928-1984)
MSA SC 3520-2965

Rita C. Davidson's career was marked with firsts. She was the first woman appointed to a cabinet post in Maryland (1970), and the first woman to serve on the Court of Special Appeals (1972) and on the Court of Appeals (1979).

Born Rita Charmatz in Brooklyn, New York on September 1, 1928, to Eiga and Michael Charmatz, Russian immigrants who came to the United States fleeing the Russian revolution. Her parents were very supportive of her ambitions, pushing her to succeed. As Davidson joked in an interview in 1978, “We had very permissive parents. They always told us we could be anything we wanted as long as it was a doctor or a lawyer.” [1]

Davidson’s drive for success and her liberal leanings were evident at a young age. She successfully ran for lieutenant governor of her Crown Heights elementary school promising to liberalize the school’s dress and conduct codes. [2] After spending time at the Julliard School of Music, Davidson realized that while she was talented, she was never going to be a concert pianist. Instead, she went to Goucher College where glimpses of her future legal career were evident as she campaigned against the school’s mandatory gym requirement. Davidson graduated from Goucher with a B.A. degree in 1948 with highest honors, and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa (Goucher also awarded her an honorary doctorate of law in 1979). She went on to Yale Law School, where she met and married classmate David S. Davidson. Rita Davidson was graduated in 1951, one of about a dozen women in her class. [3]

Davidson was admitted to the Washington, D.C. bar in 1952, and began working at the law firm Liebik & Weyand. She remained there until 1963, when she established her own practice in Rockville, Maryland. During this time, Davidson became increasingly interested in politics and public service. Having just moved to Montgomery County, she was unable to meet the residency requirement to vote in the 1956 election. Instead, she began a door-to-door campaign for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. She also attended local Democratic reform group meetings, in particular the Wheaton-Kensington Democratic Club. Davidson began as a block worker, then became precinct chair, and eventually succeeded Irving A. Levine as president of the organization. She helped found the Democratic Action Group (DAG) with Ambassador Richard Schifter, with whom she had attended law school. [4] In 1966, Rita Davidson ran for county council and was initially declared the winner. It was quickly discovered a mistake had been made in calculating the vote totals and the announced results were reversed. However, her reform group did gain control of the County Council. [5]

From 1960 to 1964, Davidson served as vice-chair, then chair, of the Montgomery County Board of Appeals, and in 1967 she became a member of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. That same year, she became a zoning hearing examiner for Montgomery County. She would be well-served by this experience, reaping knowledge she later applied as a judge in planning and zoning cases, as well as in administrative law matters. [6] In 1970, Davidson made another bid for political office, this time for Montgomery County executive. During the campaign, Governor Marvin Mandel offered Davidson a position in his cabinet as secretary of the Department of Employment and Social Services. Upon accepting this appointment, she became the first person to hold this position and the first woman in the cabinet, at the time the highest position ever held by a woman in Maryland government.[7]

As Secretary of Employment and Social Services, Davidson worked hard and quickly proved she was right for the job. She was unsatisfied with merely reading reports, preferring to see things for herself. She met with welfare recipients and other clients, seeking to make state service providers accountable for their work, visiting them to see what they actually did while on the job. Because of this, some viewed her as “somewhat of a thorn in the side.” [8]

Davidson's appointment to the Court of Special Appeals in 1972 made her the first woman member of the court. Davidson sat on this court until 1979. During her time on the bench, Davidson wrote 305 opinions in direct appeal cases. [9] She drew recognition for her liberal decisions and for her support of state welfare rights, women’s rights, and, more generally, individuals' rights. One important case in which Davidson made a dissenting opinion was Sard v. Hardy, 34 Md. App. 217 (1976), a case dealing with informed consent and medical malpractice.[10] Davidson contended that a doctor has an obligation to inform a patient of all the facts and possible consequences of an operation before undergone by a patient.

Davidson is best known for is her appointment to the Court of Appeal in 1979 by Acting Governor Blair Lee III (who asked special permission from Mandel to be given the honor of appointing her). Davidson was again the first woman to hold the position, this time in the highest court of Maryland. Her ascension to this position was a result of the death of Judge Irving A. Levine, the same man she had once succeeded as president of the Wheaton-Kensington Democratic Club, and an old friend.

Reacting to the idea that her position would threaten the “boys’ club” of this court, Davidson commented: “Men generally like women. I find no reason to believe that my newfound colleagues on the Court of Appeals will deviate from that.” [11] On the other side, quipped Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, the male judges “were in conference most of the day, preparing ourselves, steeling ourselves, for the first onslaught of feminism in the 200 years of our court. The piercing of our all-male bastion will get some getting used to.” In fact, Murphy saw her as more than just the first woman on the court. “More than that, she is the court’s first Jewish mother. Profanity will surely subside, manners will improve, we will all dress warmly for court and we will all clean our plates.” [12]

After appointment, Davidson stood for retention election in 1980 and the public reaffirmed her appointment, granting her a full ten-year term. Davidson’s role on the court was especially influential on issues concerning criminal law and the rights of defendants. [13] For example, in cases such as Scott v. State, 297 Md. 235 (1983), Foster v. State, 297 Md. 191 (1983), and Tichnell v. State, 297 Md. 1 (1983), Davidson consistently authored opinions against the death penalty, holding that it was vital to “proceed with the utmost caution and the greatest care, for… at stake is the delicate balance between the life and death of a human being.” [14] In two important family law cases, Grant v. Zich, 300 Md. (1984) and Harper v. Harper, 294 Md. (1982), Davidson issued majority opinions, stating the “source of funds” theory should be instituted in determining the distribution of marital properties upon a divorce.

Davidson never shied away from dissenting when she felt the court was in error, and often reminded the court not to shy away from its duty. In Harrison v. Montgomery County Board of Education, 295 Md. 442 (1983) she wrote of the importance of considering the pursuit of justice: “when the application of a common law principle results in injustice, it is the duty of a court to modify the common law if a legislature has failed to act. The need for stability in the law cannot justify a court’s perpetuation of outmoded and unfair court-made decisions.” [16]

She kept this duty in mind, striving to make the most informed decisions possible. Known as a hardworking and dedicated judge, Davidson spent long hours at work, demanding similar commitment from her employees. Colleagues said Davidson “typically began her days at 9 a.m., but frequently worked late into the night, calling important staff meetings at midnight or later.” [15]

Davidson's service was, sadly, cut short when by cancer on November 11, 1984. Of her work on the Court of Appeals, Davidson told an old friend, “We made some mistakes… But on the whole, we did good.” [17] She was survived by her husband, David, and their children, Minna and Leo.

In addition to being honored as an inductee of the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 1985,  Davidson was the recipient of many recognitions including the Woman of the Year Award in 1971 from the Baltimore Business and Professional Women, World’s Who’s Who of Women, and Who’s Who in America. In 1985, she was honored posthumously with the Rita C. Davidson Award, the highest award given by the Women’s Bar Association of Maryland. In 2022, a new professional association of appellate attorney was created and named The Cole-Davidson American Inn of Court, after Davidson and fellow ground-breaker Harry A. Cole, the first African American member of the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Judge Rosalyn B. Bell said Rita Davidson would want to be remembered “as someone who stood up for the downtrodden, as a good person, as someone with integrity, as someone who cared.” And so she shall. [18]

Joanna Berger, 2001

1. Timothy M. Phelps, “Rita Davidson reflects on latest ‘routine miracle’,” The Baltimore Sun, 24 December 1978.
2. William F. Zorzi, Jr. and Scott Shane, "Appeals Judge Rita Davidson Dies," The Baltimore Sun, 13 November 1984.
3. Ann G. Sjoerdsma, "Rita Charmatz Davidson, 1928-1984: The portrait of a perfectionist, with heart, wit and intelligence," The Daily Record, 20 November 1984.
4. Sjoerdsma, "Rita Charmatz Davidson."
5. Phelps, "Rita Davidson reflects."
6. Zorzi and Shane, "Appeals Judge Rita Davidson Dies."
7. Michael, Parks "Woman is Chosen for Cabinet," The Baltimore Sun, 16 April 1970.
8. Sjoerdsma, "Rita Charmatz Davidson."
9. In Memoriam, Honorable Rita C. Davidson, Memorial Services For the Honorable Rita C. Davidson, Associate Judge Court of Appeals of Maryland. Annapolis, Maryland, 19 April 1985.
10. "Md. High Court Judge Rita Davidson Dies," The Washington Post, 15  November 1984.
11. Timothy M. Phelps, “Lee selects woman for top court,” The Baltimore Sun, 20 December 1978.
12. “Davidson joins ‘male bastion’,” The Baltimore Sun, 17  January 1979.
13. Grant v. Zich 300 Md. 256 (1984) p. 256-277.
14. Richard Danny Tichnell v. State of Maryland.
15. Michael E. Harrison, et al. v. Montgomery County Board of Education, et al.
16. Frank D. Roylance, "Judge Davidson, dead at 56, carried torch for the people," The Evening Sun, 12 November 1984.
17. "Md. High Court Judge Rita Davidson Dies," The Washington Post, 15 November 1984.
18. Sjoerdsma, "Rita Charmatz Davidson."

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