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Charlotte M. Cooksey

photo of Charlotte M. Cooksey

The Honorable Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey was a visionary and an innovator who used her position to advocate for the disenfranchised, particularly women, who interfaced with the criminal justice system. Her judicial activism was novel then and would be considered so now.

Charlotte M. Cooksey was born in 1947 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was raised and received her early education in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1968, she received her B.A. from Tulane University and her J.D. from Loyola University School of Law in 1971. She started her legal career as a Lyndon B. Johnson “Great Society” VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) attorney for the Legal Assistance Corporation in New Orleans, 1971 – 1972.

Shortly after completing her VISTA service, she returned to the city of her birth, Baltimore, to pursue her career at Maryland Legal Aid. While there, she started a unit for representation in child in need of assistance cases. The CINA Project has become a state-wide initiative. She left Legal Aid to assume her first position in Maryland’s court system as a Master in Chancery, Division of Juvenile Causes, Baltimore City Circuit Court in 1979. After four years as a Master, she was appointed to the District Court of Maryland, District 1, Baltimore City, in 1983 at the age of 35. Judge Cooksey served as an Associate Judge on the District Court for 25 years, until she retired in 2008. Her last six years on the bench were spent as the presiding judge of Baltimore’s Mental Health Court, the first such court in Maryland - a problem-solving court that Judge Cooksey created.

Among the state’s first judicial officers to recognize the biological basis of addiction and the criminalization of the mentally ill, Judge Cooksey effectively advocated a seismic shift in judicial approach. She was willing to risk her reputation by promoting experimental approaches that could have failed. In the mid-1990s, she supported a pilot acupuncture program for drug addicted women in Baltimore’s jail. She played a key role in a demonstration project designed to address chronic school truancy. This program was selected as a finalist for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Herman Goldstein Award. In 2002, Judge Cooksey presided over a group of cases alleging excessive heat and other unhealthy conditions in the Women’s Detention Center. She visited the facility and, appalled by her observations, ordered health exams and a proposed alternative housing plan. A civil rights investigation ensued and a federal court ordered improvements. In 2007 she, along with other women judges and partners, was instrumental in the creation of the Pregnant Women’s Transitional Program, Chrysalis House Healthy Start, which provides holistic and trauma sensitive care to pregnant women offenders.

In 2012, she wrote the court’s Mental Health Procedures Manual, still used by the judiciary today. Judge Cooksey’s enduring contributions to Maryland’s citizens were the creation of the state’s first mental health court; its problem-solving court progeny across the state; elevating our state’s judicial approach to the mentally ill; and normalizing a humane treatment approach to marginalized populations in the criminal justice system.

“It has been my experience that success in positively impacting a systemic or societal problem comes not from one person’s work alone, but rather from the collaboration of many.” – Hon. Charlotte M. Cooksey

Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2023.

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