In 1991, after a distinguished 20-year career in the law, capped by a seven-year tour as deputy attorney general of Maryland, Dennis M. Sweeney was appointed to the Circuit Court in Howard County. His decision to apply for the job was a commendable one. Many attorneys with his qualifications are reluctant to become Circuit Court judges because such judges can be challenged in elections.
For example, that year, typically, the number of applicants for each vacancy in the state's judiciary was lower for Circuit Court judgeships than for any of the other three levels.
Why? Because unlike judges on other courts, Circuit Court judges have to run in contested elections to stay on the bench.
Contested elections bring all the worst elements of politicking to an office that should be above the fray. Judges should not have to play to the public, they should have to be loyal only to the law. Having to campaign puts them in impossible positions of giving the appearance of seeking votes and favors -- and money -- from lawyers and other citizens who may come before their courts.
Just as bad, perhaps worse, during a campaign season judges must dispense justice and campaign -- making for 16-hour days. In a new judge's case -- as in Howard -- the very time when a judge is learning the ropes, he or she must cut corners, get away from the courthouse and out to the malls or to bull roasts.
Many thoughtful legislators want to change the state constitution so that Circuit Court judges run in so-called retention elections -- they are voted in or out, but do not run against opponents. Until that can be accomplished, the public can best discourage judicial politicking by supporting sitting judges like Judge Sweeney, Judge J. Frederick Price in Kent County, and Judges Thomas J. Bollinger Sr., J. Norris Byrnes, Robert E. Cahill Sr., Edward A. DeWaters Jr. and Christian Kahl in Baltimore County -- respected judges all.