Gov. William Donald Schaefer agreed yesterday to appoint to the Baltimore Circuit Court a black candidate who appeared on the verge of knocking off one of three Schaefer-appointed white incumbent judges in the November general election.
If it becomes official, the appointment of District Judge Paul A. Smith would end a campaign many feared would be politically divisive and would split Baltimore's electorate along racial lines. There are two vacancies on the court.
Governor Schaefer declined to speak with reporters about his decision. His press secretary, Paul E. Schurick, said the governor intended to meet with Judge Smith this afternoon to discuss the appointment.
Reached last night by telephone, Judge Smith said, "I haven't heard it yet." But he acknowledged he has an appointment with the governor today. He deferred comment until then.
Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, said Judge Smith had been told that black leaders would take the issue up with the governor and that the candidate had "expressed some interest" in their efforts.
"This would be a win-win situation for all parties, for the sitting judges, for Paul Smith, for those of us who want to practice racial harmony and coalition building," said Delegate Rawlings.
The announcement yesterday followed a 30-minute meeting by the governor in his State House office with more than a dozen black legislators, civic activists, and clergymen. U.S. Representative Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.-7th, telephoned the governor yesterday afternoon in support of Judge Smith's appointment.
State Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore, said the black leaders convinced the governor that appointing Judge Smith would spare the city from a judicial election that already was polarizing the community along racial lines.
Black voters were being urged to "single-shoot" the election -- that is, vote only for the black candidate, Senator Blount said. Judge Smith had even incorporated the strategy into his campaign, telling his voters to "vote for me and not for three."
Judge Smith made it into the general election by placing third in last month's Democratic primary, knocking out incumbent Circuit Judge John C. Themelis, who has been on the bench since October 1988. But Judge Themelis and his colleagues, Ellen L. Hollander and Richard T. Rombro, won the three available slots in the Republican primary, setting up next month's contest. Judge Hollander has served since March 1989 and Judge Rombro since February 1989.
Throughout the campaign, Judge Smith has told his supporters that he was the most qualified candidate and that he had been recommended by the Judicial Nominating Commission for appointment to each of the judgeships that eventually went to the three white incumbents, who are standing for election, as they must do in the first election following appointment.
Although Baltimore's population is more than 60 percent black, only seven of the 23 judges now on the city Circuit Court bench are black. That ratio has disturbed many in Baltimore's black community and is a main reason for Judge Smith's wide-ranging support. For many, his campaign had become a way of showing dissatisfaction over the judicial appointment process.
Judge Themelis, who many believed to be the most vulnerable of the incumbents, said that from his point of view, the appointment would serve two purposes: save his position on the Circuit Court bench and secure the appointment of a qualified African-American to the Circuit Court.
"I'm glad because I don't like the feelings that an election such as the one that we're in generates. I just don't like the impact on our city and the feelings that it leaves with people across our city," said Judge Themelis.