Judge postings unfilled

July 23, 1995|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's push to place more women and minorities on the Maryland bench has delayed the selection of new judges in several overburdened county courts where officials say cases continue to pile up.

Prosecutors and attorneys in some of the hardest pressed counties, including Harford and Howard, tell of frequent postponements and frustrated citizens.

In the past few months, while people in Howard had hoped the governor would appoint a new judge, the average time to complete a circuit court civil case has risen from 10 months to more than a year, said court administrator John Shatto.

Three trials were postponed Wednesday because there weren't enough judges, said Howard State's Attorney Marna McLendon. One involved a man accused of beating his 22-month-old stepson with a vacuum cleaner hose.

"This is pure garbage that we can't get judges in place in Howard County when there are many qualified individuals who are willing to serve," said Fred Howard Silverstein, head of the county bar association.

Mr. Glendening defended the delay last week, attributing it to the time it is taking him to establish a new nominating system that encourages greater racial and gender diversity on the bench.

Saying that the selection of Maryland's judiciary is too important to rush, the governor said he wants to wait until the system is in place in September before appointing new judges.

"We're making basically appointments that will affect Maryland well, well into the next century," he said. "I'm going to do it right. It may take a few weeks longer or a month longer, but I'm going to do it right."

(In his first term, it took Mr. Glendening's predecessor, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, six months to appoint his first two judges, according to state officials.)

Gov. Glendening has made affirmative action a priority in his young administration. He ran last year promising to create a more diverse state court. "I made a commitment during the campaign, and I honor my commitments," Mr. Glendening said.

His pledges paid off as he took the majority of the state's black vote in the closest governor's race in 60 years.

His new judicial policy was prompted, in part, by two highly publicized incidents in which white, male circuit judges in

Baltimore County were accused of being insensitive to women after they gave light sentences to a rapist and to a man who killed his wife.

It also was a response to a state task force report that called for more diversity in the judiciary. The report, commissioned by the governor, noted that of Maryland's 240 judges, only 36 were women and only 29 were African-American. There are no Asians and no Hispanics.

On the heels of the report, Mr. Glendening issued an executive order requiring that local nominating commissions "be sensitive to gender and diversity issues in the evaluation of judicial candidates."

He also scrapped the state's 16 nominating commissions -- as is a new governor's prerogative -- and began to establish new ones with a more diverse membership.

In the meantime, the state's judiciary has used retired judges to try to ease the burden on county courts. Top judicial officers say they respect Mr. Glendening's decision to take his time in implementing the policy.

"I'm willing to do all the waiting that's necessary to get quality appointees, and I am satisfied that that is his goal," said Judge Robert F. Sweeney, chief judge of Maryland's District Court.

Officials and attorneys in county courts have been less understanding, occasionally wondering why the governor declined to choose from nominating lists submitted by local commissions several months ago.

"I think people are just sort of mystified by what's happening," said Robert Kahoe, an Bel Air attorney who practices in the Harford County court system. The delay, he said, has "just continued a bad situation. I think another judge would go a long way toward helping that."

The wait appears to have caused the most frustration in Howard, where the retirement of Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. in May left two seats open on the five-member Circuit Court bench.

The county's nominating commission submitted the names of six people, all white, on April 12. A black county councilman and the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People urged the governor to reject the list because it contained no minorities. Howard County is 12 percent black; all seven of its seated judges in circuit and district court are white.

Some members of the nominating commission have interpreted the governor's delay as a slap in the face. By not acting on the commission's recommendations, "it makes them all look like racists," said Mr. Silverstein, who served on the commission.

Former commission member Vivian C. Bailey defended the selection process. "I am always conscious of the need to have Negroes represented in all areas," said Mrs. Bailey, who is black. "However, the names that went forward were the people that in our best judgment were the most highly qualified."

Mr. Glendening said his decision to delay naming a judge was not meant as a criticism of the commission's list. "I can't even tell you who's on the list," he said.

He merely wanted to wait until he had a new system in place before making decisions, he said. In filling judgeships this fall, he said he would consider the names already nominated in Howard, Harford and Washington counties, along with those submitted by new nominating commissions whose members he largely appoints.

Mr. Glendening, who took office in January, said he hoped to finish filling the judgeships -- 16 are open -- by October.

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