For the sitting judges

September 07, 1994

Circuit Court judges are the only ones in the state's judicial system who have to run to retain their judgeships against challengers. This year there is only one such contest, in Prince George's County. In other circuits where judges are running for re-election they have no opposition.

Six sitting judges of the Prince George's County Circuit Court are running against three challengers for those six seats. They are presumed to be safely on the way to renomination in both the Democratic and Republican primaries (Circuit Court candidates cross-file), but you never know. One of the three challengers seems to have them worried. She is an assistant public defender, Elvira White, who has injected charges of racism into the campaign, blaming, unfairly, some of her professional setbacks on "plantation politics."

One sitting judge is black, five are white. All have good records and deserve re-nomination and re-election. They are: Vincent J. Femia, Robert H. Mason, C. Philip Nichols Jr., William B. Spellbring Jr., Robert J. Woods and Sylvania W. Woods Sr.

The Sun has long believed that Circuit Court judges should be appointed for a term, at the end of which voters could oust them or keep them -- but no candidates would run against them. This is the way judges on the Court of Special Appeals and Court of Appeals are answerable to the voters. It's their records, not campaign skills, that count.

The Circuit Court system of contested elections forces judges into terrible political behavior -- campaigning for votes and campaign contributions, principally among lawyers. Particularly unpleasant is the business of having judges ask lawyers who practice in their courtrooms for money. Even if asking for contributions does not create a debt, it creates the appearance of one.

In Baltimore City and Baltimore County, where Circuit Court judges are running unopposed this year, the judges raised money anyway, fearful they might have opponents. In both circuits, unspent funds will be held over till two years from now, when other sitting judges would be able to use it. In a way this makes campaign contributions supportive of the sitting judge principle rather than individual sitting judges. It is something of an improvement in that sense, but it's still individual judges seeking money from lawyers and others who may have business before them.

The best solution to the problem is to change the state Constitution and do away with contested elections for Circuit Court judges.

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