Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Rita C. Davidson (1928-1984)
MSA SC 3520-2965
Judge, Montgomery County Court of Special Appeals, 1972-1979;
Judge, Montgomery County Court of Appeals, 1979-1984;
Judge, Maryland Court of Appeals, 1979-1984.

Rita Charmatz Davidson was a woman whose career was marked with firsts. She was the first woman on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the first woman appointed to the Maryland Cabinet, and the first woman to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state.

Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1928, Rita Charmatz was the daughter of Russian immigrants Eiga and Michael Charmatz who came to the United States to flee the Bolshevik Revolution. Her parents were very supportive of her ambitions, pushing her to succeed. As Rita 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 Judge Davidson’s drive for success and her liberal leanings were evident from the first. The ambitious young lady successfully ran for lieutenant governor of her Crown Heights Elementary School on a platform that promised a liberalization of the school’s dress and conduct codes.2  After spending some time at Julliard School of Music, Judge 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. Judge Davidson graduated from Goucher with a B.A. degree in 1948, with Phi Beta Kappa, highest honors. (Goucher also awarded her an honorary doctorate of law in 1979.) She went on to Yale Law School, where she met and married fellow Yale classmate David S. Davidson. Rita Davidson was graduated in 1951, one of no more than a dozen women in her class.3

Rita Davidson’s career began in 1952 when she was admitted to the Washington D.C. Bar and began practice with Liebik and Weyand. She remained with the firm until 1963 at which time she started her own practice in Rockville, Maryland.

During this time, politics became increasingly important to Davidson. Having just moved to Montgomery County, she was unable to meet the residency requirement to vote in the 1956 election. Therefore, she began a door to door campaign for Adlai Stevenson so as to voice her opinion. She also attended local Democratic reform group meetings, in particular those of the Wheaton-Kensington Democratic Club. Rita Davidson began as a block worker, then became precinct chairman, and eventually succeeded Irving A. Levine as president of the organization. She helped found the Democratic Group (DAG) with Ambassador Schifter.4In 1966 Rita Davidson ran for County Council and was declared the winner. However, it was quickly discovered a mistake had been made in calculating the election results and Rita was unseated, but her reform group did gain control of the County Council.5

From 1960 until 1964 Davidson served as the vice-chair and then chairwoman of the Montgomery County Board of Appeals. In 1967 she was on the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. One of the big “firsts” of her career came in 1967 when she became the Montgomery County Zoning Hearing Examiner. Davidson was the first person to hold this position and one of the only women to have done so to the present day. She would be well served by this experience, reaping from it knowledge useful for cases dealing with zoning and planning law, as well as in administrative law matters.6

The year 1970 found Rita Davidson making another bid for political office, this time as Montgomery County Executive. During her campaign, Governor Mandel offered Davidson a position in his cabinet as Secretary of the Maryland 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 Maryland Cabinet, the highest position ever held by a woman in Maryland government. Some saw this appointment as a political move on Governor Mandel’s part, undertaken to win quick favor with women voters and “to ease prospects of a bloody primary fight in Montgomery County over the Democratic nomination for county executive”7 , a fight that had the potential to split the Democratic constituents of that area. As Secretary of the Maryland Department of Employment and Social Services, Rita Davidson worked hard and quickly proved she was right for the job. She was unsatisfied with merely reading reports, she had to see things for herself. She met with welfare mothers and other clients, and sought 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 Rumors following Rita Davidson’s death say Governor Mandel may have shared this sentiment and this could have played a role in his appointing her to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, to rid himself of an office nuisance.

Her appointment to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals again marked Rita Davidson as a “first”, the first woman to hold this position. Judge Davidson sat on this court from 1972 until 1979. During her time on the bench, Rita Davidson made 305 opinions in direct appeal cases, 68 majority, and 12 dissents.9 She became known for her liberal decisions and her support of state welfare rights, women’s rights, and, more generally, individual’s rights. In 1976 one important case which Judge Davidson made a dissenting opinion was Sard v. Hardy, a case dealing with informed consent and medical malpractice.10 Judge Davidson contended in this case that a doctor has an obligation to inform a patient of all the facts and possible consequences of an operation before the patient undergoes it.

Probably what Judge Davidson is best known for is her role in the Maryland Court of Appeals. Appointed to this court in 1979 by acting Governor Lee (who asked special permission from Governor Mandel to be given the honor of appointing her). Judge Davidson was again a “first” as 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 Honorable Irving A. Levine, the same man she had once succeeded as president of the Wheaton-Kensington Democratic Club, and an old friend. Her appointment continued the tradition that this position be held by a Jewish person and maintained the tenuous liberal majority that was emerging at the time of her appointment. Humorously reacting to the idea that her position would threaten the “boys’ club” of this court, Judge Davidson stated: “Men generally like women. I find no reason to believe that my newfound colleagues on the Court of Appeals will deviate from that.”11On the other side of this, the male judges, according to Chief Judge Murphy, “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, Chief Judge 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

Such remarks aside, Judge Davidson’s place on this court was very important not only for its landmark implications but also for its judicial ones as well. The public reaffirmed her appointment in the election of 1980, when they voted her in for a full ten-year term. Judge Davidson’s role on the court was especially influential on several cases. She became a solid member on the liberal bloc of judges in terms of questions of criminal law and defendants rights. In both Grant v. Zich, 300 Md. (1984)13 and again in Harper v. Harper, 294 Md. (1982), Judge Davidson issued the Court Opinion, stating the “source of funds” theory should be instituted in determining the distribution of marital properties upon a divorce. In death penalty 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), Judge Davidson consistently issued opinions against the issuing of a death penalty sentence. She held that one must “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 Judge Davidson never shied away from issuing a dissenting opinion if she felt the court in error. She spent long hours at work, demanding dedication 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 and recharging on two packs of cigarettes a day, diet soda, peanuts and crackers.”15 She called for the court to not shy away from its duty. In Michael E. Harrison et al. V. Montgomery County Board of Education et al., 295 Md. 442 (1983) she expressed this duty as being:

“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 always kept this duty in mind as she strove to make the most informed decisions possible. Her duty was, sadly, cut short when a bout with cancer took her life on November 11, 1984. Of her work on the Court of Appeals, Judge Davidson told an old friend, “We made some mistakes… But on the whole, we did good.”17 She is remembered by her family, husband David Davidson, and her children, Minna and Leo Davidson, as well as by her friends and all those lives she touched.

Besides being a member of the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, Rita Davidson was the recipient of several recognitions, both during her life and after. Just a few of these are the Woman of the Year Award in 1971 from the Baltimore Business and Professional Women, the World’s Who’s Who of Women, and The 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. 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.”18And so she shall.

End Notes

1. Phelps, Timothy M., “Rita Davidson reflects on latest ‘routine miracle’,” The Baltimore Sun, 24 December 1978, B1+. Return to text
2. Zorzi, William F., Jr. and Scott Shane, "Appeals Judge Rita Davidson Dies," The Baltimore Sun, 13  November 1984, Section A. Return to text
3. Sjoerdsma, Ann G., "Rita Charmatz Davidson, 1928-1984: The portrait of a perfectionist, with heart, wit and intelligence," The Daily Record, 20 November 20 1984, 1-7. Return to text
4. Sjoerdsma, Ann G, "Rita Charmatz Davidson." Return to text
5. Phelps, Timothy M, "Rita Davidson reflects." Return to text
6. Zorzi, William F., and Scott Shane, "Appeals Judge Rita Davidson Dies." Return to text
7. Parks, Michael, "Woman is Chosen for Cabinet," The Baltimore Sun, 16  April 1970, C7+. Return to text
8. Sjoerdsma, Ann G., "Rita Charmatz Davidson." Return to text
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. Return to text
10. "Md. High Court Judge Rita Davidson Dies," The Washington Post, 15  November 1984. Return to text
11. Phelps, Timothy M., “Lee selects woman for top court,The Baltimore Sun, 20 December 1978, A1. Return to text
12. “Davidson joins ‘male bastion’,” The Baltimore Sun, 17  January 1979, C6. Return to text
13. Grant v. Zich 300 Md. 256 (1984) p. 256-277. COURT OF APPEALS (Maryland Reports), vol. 300, 1984, Accession Number: MdHR 851299, Location: 2/6/10/70, J1. Return to text
14. Richard Danny Tichnell v. State of Maryland. COURT OF APPEALS. (Maryland Reports) vol. 297, 1984 , Accession Number: MdHR 842029, Location: 2/6/10/70, J211. Return to text
15. Roylance, Frank D, "Judge Davison, dead at 56, carried torch for the people," The Evening Sun, 12  November 1984, D1-D2. Return to text
16. Michael E. Harrison et al. V. Montgomery County Board of Education et al. COURT OF APPEALS. (Maryland Reports), vol. 295, 1983, Accession Number: MdHR 841215, Location: 2/6/10/69, J200. Return to text
17. "Md. High Court Judge Rita Davidson Dies," The Washington Post, 15 November 1984. Return to text
18. Sjoerdsma, Ann G., "Rita Charmatz Davidson." Return to text

Biography written by Maryland State Archives Summer 2001 Intern Joanna Berger.

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