A tribute to Rikki Fleisher from Judge Robert Zarnoch

RISSELLE  ROSENTHAL  FLEISHER (1934-2012)

Special thanks to Judge Robert Zarnoch for this tribute.

In July of 1978, just three years after graduating from law school, Risselle Rosenthal Fleisher (“Rikki”) was named General Counsel to the Maryland Commission on Human Relations.  “This is all I ever cared about,” she told a reporter at the time.  Fighting discrimination was her vocation. A co-founder of the Baltimore chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality, Rikki said in a news interview, “I’ve been in the civil rights movement since 1954.  I was an activist. I was involved in street demonstrations . . . . But then the Sixties came to an end and the action wasn’t out there anymore; it was in the courts.”

For Rikki, a career in the law was a late-blooming notion. After raising two children, she entered the University of Maryland Law School in 1972. At that time, the dams were still breaking for women and the law.  Rikki was among those women in the first wave, re- entering classrooms after nearly two decades and competing for grades with ‘twenty-somethings.’ And she competed very well. She graduated in the Spring of 1975 and passed the bar exam that Fall. Four months after she was sworn in before the State’s highest court, she was appointed as an assistant general counsel to the Commission. In little more than two years, she held the top legal job in the agency.

The 1970's were a troublesome period for the Human Relations Commission, both in the courts and the Legislature. In a 1974 decision curbing the agency’s enforcement powers in employment discrimination cases, the Maryland Court of Appeals held that the Commission was not authorized to award monetary relief.   For a time, the best the Legislature could do was empower the Commission to seek temporary injunctive relief when an employee was terminated. In 1977, legislation was enacted to restore the Commission’s power to award monetary relief, but at a cost. The agency was reorganized and the terms of incumbent members of the Commission were eliminated.  The Commission found itself friendless at a time when its staff was in chaos.  In fact, when Rikki was named General Counsel, she was the agency’s third chief legal officer in two years.

Rikki became a major stabilizing influence. She served the Commission for 12 years, 10 as General Counsel. During that period, the legal pendulum began to swing - - although slowly at first - - in the Commission’s favor.   High profile employers, represented by prestigious law firms, did not take the Commission seriously.  They ran to court before administrative proceedings could get off the ground, challenged Commission subpoenas at every turn, proffered cramped readings of the Commission’s enabling statute and, if they lost, invariably appealed. But Rikki fought them.
 
In a seven-month period in 1983-84, she had three victories in the State’s highest court against a major utility, a steel manufacturer and a State transit agency.  In each case, the Court of Appeals said that the employer had failed to exhaust its Commission remedies before seeking judicial intervention.  In 1979, a subpoena battle with Prince George’s County, over Commission access to police brutality records, ended in the vacating of an adverse Court of Special Appeals decision. Rikki successfully urged the Court of Appeals to reject Baltimore City’s contention that local governments were exempt from coverage under the Human Relations Article.  In an epic confrontation with a prominent insurance company, Rikki convinced the Court of Appeals that the Commission had jurisdiction over gender-based rates and underwriting. This led to a see-saw, multi-year battle in the General Assembly, which eventually changed the law to side with the insurance industry.

But Rikki had many more victories than defeats, both in the courts and the Legislature. She participated in 25 reported cases in State appellate courts, winning some 70 percent of them.   In the General Assembly, she successfully lobbied for an expansion of the Commission’s role in preventing discrimination against the disabled and for legislation improving maternity benefits.

When Rikki moved on from the Human Relations Commission in 1988, she left behind a stronger agency, better able to protect the victims of discrimination.  Her legal career was far from over, however.  She joined the Attorney General’s office and as an Assistant Attorney General for six years, she represented the Motor Vehicle Administration. There, she won two major cases in the Court of Appeals where drunk drivers were sanctioned for their refusal to take a breathalyzer test.

The pages of published Maryland appellate decisions will forever attest to Rikki’s passion for justice and her fierce commitment to the protection of individual rights.