The Circuit Court clerk for Baltimore County has become embroiled in a political controversy over complaints that she's been campaigning inside the courthouse for the five sitting judges up for election this year.
Suzanne Mensh, a former Orphans' Court judge elected clerk in 1986, began giving an "educational" orientation speech to prospective jurors Jan. 27 of this year, at the request of "the bench," she said.
She stopped last week after one judicial candidate filed a formal complaint. The speech was given eight times to a total of roughly 800 people.
The speech, a copy of which Ms. Mensh provided, described the judicial nominating process and informed the jurors -- who are picked from the county's voter rolls -- that the five sitting judges are up for election.
She mentioned their names. She mentioned that the primary election is March 3. She left out the names of four lawyers who are challenging the sitting judges.
"I am absolutely outraged," said Del. Louis L. DePazzo, a Democrat from Dundalk who is running for a spot on the Circuit Court bench. "This is despicable. This is absolutely despicable. . . . This is a smelly fish."
"I think it's an example of how political the bench is," said Albert Boyce, another lawyer running for the bench. "I don't think it's fair and I don't think it's the kind of conduct people expect from their judges."
Ms. Mensh said she began addressing prospective jurors Jan. 27 and continued until last Thursday, when she stopped after Mr. DePazzo wrote a letter of complaint to Judge Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, and Circuit Judge J. William Hinkel, administrative judge for Baltimore County.
"I was instructed by the bench" to give the talk." Ms. Mensh said. "Before I started reading [the speech], it was approved."
The approval came by telephone from Judge Edward A. DeWaters, one of the five judges up for election, said Ms. Mensh,
Judge DeWaters is the circuit's administrative judge and chief judge. While not admitting that he had approved the speech, he did say, "I will not say to you that I did not know that she was going to make this comment. . . . I don't see where it has anything to do with electioneering. She was not asking them to vote for anybody."
Ms. Mensh insisted yesterday that the speech was purely educational and that she agreed to give it because she believes voters ought to understand how the system works. "I think an aware electorate is an intelligent electorate," she said.
But A. Gordon Boone III, a former clerk under Ms. Mensh who waged a bitter campaign for her job in 1990, said yesterday he sat in on one of her jury talks last Wednesday. He claims it was a political speech.
After the jurors were shown an orientation video, Mr. Boone said, "there was a little electioneering going on." He said he went up to Ms. Mensh and said, "Suzanne, glad to see you're keeping politics out of the courthouse."
"I was shocked," Mr. Boone added.
Mr. Boone's father is District Judge A. Gordon Boone Jr., who is also running for a spot on the Circuit Court bench.
Meanwhile, Judge Hinkel responded to Mr. DePazzo's Feb. 6 complaint by saying he could find no evidence of wrongdoing, but that the sitting judges up for election asked Ms. Mensh to stop giving the talks.
Judge Hinkel said that he had talked with an assistant state attorney general, Alexander Wright, who assured him that no laws had been broken.
"Here you have a candidate," said Judge Hinkel, referring to Mr. DePazzo, "who is trying to get a little free publicity for a faltering campaign. And we have to go through all this."
Mr. DePazzo, however, said he had spoken with Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who informed him that there might be a violation of the judicial "canon of ethics."
"Those robes can only hide so much," Mr. DePazzo said. "They can't hide this."