Judicial Politics in the City

September 29, 1990

After he won a place on the general election ballot by coming in third in the five-candidate Democratic primary for the Circuit Court of Baltimore City, Paul Smith said, "I don't think I'll have any trouble raising some more money."

No matter how you slice it, what that really means is now that he has a good chance to become a Circuit Court judge, people who expect to have business before the court want to get on his good side.

What a sad commentary on the way we choose judges for this court. What a mockery this makes of "equal justice under law."

Judges are not supposed to be beholden in any way to lawyers and litigants who come before them. Yet when judges are forced to run as political candidates in contested elections, they almost inevitably become indebted along the way. Candidate Smith is hardly alone. The three sitting judges he challenged spent over $280,000.

The whole system is screwy. Candidates run in both parties' primaries. Circuit Court Judges Ellen Hollander and Richard Rombro won in both primaries; Circuit Court Judge John Themelis defeated Judge Smith (he sits on the lower-level District Court) in one party primary, and Judge Smith defeated Judge Themelis in the other. So the four compete again for three jobs in November.

Judge Smith is black. He ran because Gov. William Donald Schaefer had appointed his white opponents to the Circuit Court instead of him. It is unfortunate that the governor allowed an all-white ticket to go before city voters. The reality is that blacks make up a majority of voters and an overwhelming majority of the users of the Circuit Court. Black citizens need more confidence in the system. The city needs more black judges.

The city also needs the best judges available, regardless of color, and so we sympathize with the governor, who was advised -- and agreed with the advice -- that in filling court vacancies, Judge Smith was not as competent as his competition.

It should be noted, however, that in each recent Baltimore City election in which the sitting-judge slate was balanced racially, the sitting judges won with ease, largely avoiding political entanglements. In each election in which the slate was not balanced, a sitting judge was defeated.

To protect sitting judges from having to engage in this sort of raw politicking, governors need to search affirmatively for qualified black judges. It's too late to do anything about 1990, but this will be an issue again in 1992 unless the governor is realistic in his future appointments.

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