Race, Politics and Judgeships

October 04, 1990

Racial politics is always unattractive, especially in judicial contests -- and especially when it is so unnecessary to achieve the desired result.

In the city election Nov. 6, a black candidate, District Court Judge Paul Smith, is challenging three white Circuit Court judges, Ellen Hollander, Richard Rombro and John Themelis. Voters are supposed to vote for three candidates, and the three with the highest totals win. But blacks are being urged to vote for only Judge Smith, primarily because he's black.

Many Baltimore black leaders say privately this is not the best way to choose judges, but believe that a community's judiciary, like its juries, should reflect that community's racial composition. They choose the election route to achieve their goal out of dissatisfaction with a Circuit Court here that has 16 white judges and 7 black judges -- this in a city over 60 percent black.

The reason for this discrepancy goes back to former Gov. Harry Hughes' decision, shortly before he left office, to appoint two whites to judgeships vacated by two blacks. Otherwise, the line-up would be 14 and 9. Many blacks would consider that a reasonable ratio, especially since the trend line was in the right direction. There are two vacancies as of now. If Gov. William Donald Schaefer were to name two blacks to those vacancies, the ratio would be 16 and 9 -- reasonable and again moving in the desired direction.

We think the governor should do so. Perhaps the best qualified person on the governor's list of nominees recommended by a special advisory panel is a black, District Court Judge Andre Davis. Judge Smith is also on the list. Were both to be appointed, that would do two important things: (1) Restart the movement toward racial balance on the court, and (2) demonstrate that elections aren't needed to do that. If such a decision were made before tomorrow's deadline for Judge Smith's withdrawal from the general election, it would de-politicize the Circuit Court contest, which is having a polarizing effect on the city's body politic.

A third important benefit might be -- and should be -- that black politicians end their opposition to a constitutional amendment, favored by the governor and the state's chief judge, to take circuit court judgeships out of the arena of contested elections. The divisiveness of the current campaign should not be repeated.

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