Courthouse Politics in Towson

February 17, 1992

Here's another example why judges should not have to get embroiled in elective politics. Only this time, the bad example was set by some judges and their court clerk, not a bunch of ward heelers seeking to undermine the sanctity of the judiciary.

Suzanne Mensh, the circuit court clerk for Baltimore County, decided last month that citizens called for jury duty would benefit by a little lecture on the judicial system. Not a bad idea, on its face. But for about a year the jurors have been shown a video doing just that. In the heat of an occasionally bitter campaign for five seats on the bench she serves, Ms. Mensh was adding a personal touch to the orientation of the jurors. With the knowledge of Chief Judge Edward A. DeWaters, Ms. Mensh put in a little plug for him and the four other judges seeking election to full terms. She didn't mention their four opponents.

Whatever their motive, Judge DeWaters and Ms. Mensh should have known better. They are not neophytes in judicial politics. Judge DeWaters has served 16 years on the Baltimore County trial court and was a courthouse veteran before then. Ms. Mensh was an Orphans Court judge for six terms before her first election as clerk six years ago. This was dirty pool, and they should have known it. Granted, sitting judges are hampered in their ability to play partisan politics on the hustings, but this ploy dragged politics inside the courthouse.

The best way to protect the judiciary from questionable politics is to let circuit judges, like the judges in all the other courts in Maryland, run on their records rather than against live opponents. Next best is for voters to evaluate the sitting judges on their performance, ignoring the freewheeling claims of opponents who can get as negative as they like. But neither system works if the judges themselves, or their adherents, try underhanded stunts themselves. There is no better way to breach nonpartisanship than from the inside.

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