Judge Candidate Irked By Lawyers' Backing Of Foe

Bar Association Supports Sweeney

January 22, 1992|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff writer

The Howard County Bar Association's endorsement of one candidate forthe Circuit Court judge seat has raised the ire of another.

Candidate Charles A. Wehland is upset that the bar association endorsed Dennis M. Sweeney, who was appointed to the bench last year after JudgeJ. Thomas Nissel retired. Wehland contends that in endorsing Sweeneyby referendum, the association violated its own by-laws.

The by-laws authorize a vote to endorse only when the candidate is being reelected, Wehland said.

"Well, Judge Sweeney is not beingreelected," Wehland said. "He was appointed. He does not meet the requirement of the by-laws to be eligible for the endorsement procedurethey used."

The by-laws state that a referendum will be held "with respect to all sitting judicial officers who have not declared thatthey will not seek re-election."

Since Sweeney was the incumbent judge, the bar association sent out ballots asking, "Is the record of(Judge Sweeney) for integrity, temperament, and professional competence such that he is entitled to immediate endorsement for re-election?"

More than 150 of the nearly 250 bar association members voted. Ninety-two percent of those voting favored Sweeney; 8 percent were undecided.

Janet Filtzer, executive director of the bar association,said the association used the same procedure two years ago when it endorsed Circuit Judge James Dudley, who also had been appointed and was seeking election. Nobody complained about the referendum then, Filtzer said.

"What slipped through once because it was not raised isnot precedence for making the same mistake a second time," Wehland said.

"I think it's much to-do about nothing," said Filtzer. "(Judge Sweeney) is an incumbent judge. He is the sitting incumbent. That'sexactly the intent of the by-laws."

Wehland, a member of the bar association, said he did not vote because two other members -- one ofthem his campaign treasurer -- wrote a letter protesting the referendum. He said he and a number of other lawyers were awaiting a reply before voting.

Lewis Nippard, Wehland's campaign treasurer and an Ellicott City lawyer, said he hand-delivered a letter to District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, head of the bar association, about a week beforethe referendum deadline. The reply he received, a letter signed by the co-chairs of the association's judicial selection committee, said although the language was ambiguous, "the clear intent of the By-LawsCommittee was to cover sitting judges standing for election or re-election."

Nippard said he had planned to seek an injunction againstthe bar association, but the association released the endorsement notice before he could file.

"I think somebody figured out I was going to go seek an injunction and wanted to abolish that opportunity," Nippard said. "The whole problem was that everybody who made these decisions are people who had already committed themselves and put themselves on the committee of Dennis Sweeney.

"As a past president, I don't think this is the association's finest hour by any means."

Like Sweeney, Nippard applied for the Circuit Court judge seat when Nissel retired.

Sweeney said his opponent, Wehland, is trying to detract from the race.

"It's a true red herring," he said. "The bottom line is, I've received an overwhelming endorsement with not a single vote against me."

The other candidate, Donald Messenger, a Prince George's County lawyer who has lived in Howard County for 18 years,had no comment about the dispute.

"As far as the internal squabbles of the association, I'm not going to get into that," he said. "Once it becomes a race, like it has now, it's up to the voter to decide."

The winner will be decided by voters during the March 3 primaries. Under state law, Circuit Court judges who have been appointed mustrun in elections that occur at least one year after their appointment to continue on the bench. Sweeney was appointed last year by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to the $89,000-a-year position, beating out three other finalists.

Circuit Court judges are elected to a 15-yearterm and must run on the ballot for re-election, unlike District Court judges, who are appointed by the governor and reviewed every 10 years by the state Senate.

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