What had threatened to be a racially divisive election for a seat on the Baltimore Circuit Court was expected to be averted today with the appointment of Democratic challenger and District Court Judge Paul A. Smith to a vacancy on the bench.
The appointment, by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, would have the effect of removing Smith, a black, from the Nov. 6 general election ballot, leaving city voters to choose three white sitting judges for three seats.
There now are two vacancies on the Circuit Court -- one a new judgeship created by the 1990 General Assembly and the other by the retirement of Judge Mary Arabian.
Schaefer's decision to appoint Smith, 54, a District Court judge since 1983, came at a private meeting in Annapolis yesterday between the governor and 13 political and business leaders of Baltimore's black community.
Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-City, who attended the meeting, praised the decision and said it would ensure "peace and harmony in the city."
Smith's candidacy had developed strong support in the black community, and political observers speculated that the Baltimore native had a good chance of unseating one of the three white judges.
Judicial candidates run in the primaries of both parties. Smith gained a nomination on the Democratic side. Themelis, who was ousted there, won nomination from the Republicans.
Black political and community leaders had voiced concern that in a city estimated to be more than 60 percent black the number of black judges on the 24-member Circuit Court had decreased from eight to seven in the past five years.
Judges Ellen L. Hollander, Richard T. Rombro and John C. Themelis were appointed by the governor to the Circuit Court during the past two years. Schaefer campaigned for their election this summer.
State law requires that judges appointed to the Circuit Court run for full 15-year terms in the next statewide election after their appointments.
Although many Circuit Court judges face elections before they leave the bench, the prospect of waging a political battle is not welcomed at the judicial level.
"I had absolutely no political experience and no political background," a relieved Hollander said yesterday after learning that Smith was to be named to the bench today.
Themelis, who called Schaefer's decision "terrific," said he had been concerned he might lose on Election Day because his name would appear last on the ballot.
"That was a big concern," he said. "In fact, I was terribly worried about that because most people have no conception of who's running and what they've done."
Political sources said the hard campaigning by Smith and the three sitting judges would have been unnecessary had Schaefer elevated Smith to the Circuit Court level this summer.
Sources said black leaders had urged Smith to withdraw his name from the race in hopes that he would get a later appointment from the governor. Smith reportedly refused to withdraw unless he had assurances from Schaefer that he would be named to the Circuit Court bench.
For his part, Schaefer refused any such promise, sources said. Black political organizations quickly rallied around Smith, and the campaigns threatened to develop into a black-vs.-white election.
Blount said he supports the practice of Circuit Court judges running for their seats, but he said this year's election is an exception.
"It makes sense to break this impasse and appoint Judge Paul Smith," said Blount. "We feel this would end discord. . . . We think it preserves an institution and keeps peace and harmony in the city."
For his name to be removed from the November ballot, Smith is expected to resign his candidacy. The Maryland Democratic State Central Committee also is expected to nominate Themelis, who won in the Republican primary, to replace Smith on the Democratic side of the ballot, thus ensuring that only the names of the three sitting judges appear on the ballot.
The Baltimore Democratic State Central Committee met last night and, after hearing an appeal from Blount for racial harmony, passed a resolution asking the Maryland committee to nominate Themelis if the vacancy occurs.
Smith was to meet with Schaefer today before the appointment officially was announced.