Circuit Court gains its first black judge Attorney must stand for election March 5 for a 15-year term

November 21, 1995|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Attorney Donna Hill Staton was sworn in yesterday as the first black judge and second woman on the Howard County Circuit Court, part of a continuing effort by Gov. Parris N. Glendening to bring racial and gender diversity to Maryland's courts.

Judge Staton's swearing in was the second milestone for Howard County in a week: Diane O. Leasure, the first female Circuit judge, was sworn in Nov. 13.

"For the community, it certainly is a historic occasion, but I have worked throughout my professional career to accomplish this goal," said Judge Staton, 37, only the second black woman to serve as a Circuit Court judge in the state. "I am appreciative that Governor Glendening found me highly qualified and selected me to serve in this capacity."

Until last week, all but one of Howard County's District Court and Circuit Court judges -- Judge Lenore Gelfman of District Court -- were white men. Judges Leasure and Staton were appointed last month.

Circuit Court judges handle civil lawsuits, felony criminal cases, divorces, custody disputes and child-support cases.

"You can rest assured that you have added a ready, willing and able colleague," Judge Staton told her four Circuit Court colleagues yesterday.

The new judges, each of whom will have an annual salary of $93,500, will have to be confirmed by voters next year in the March 5 primary and again in the Nov. 5 general election. If they keep their seats, they will serve 15-year terms.

Mr. Glendening appointed Judge Staton and Judge Leasure after two black organizations criticized the Judicial Nominating Commission for Howard County for not including blacks and for having too few women in its pool of judicial nominees.

However, some members of the Howard County Bar Association expect both new judges to be challenged in the primary election.

Judge Staton replaces Judge Cornelius Sybert Jr., who retired last spring. Since then, the Circuit Court's three other judges have struggled to keep up with a docket crowded with civil matters and criminal cases.

"We finally have reached our full complement of judges as determined by the legislature," said Raymond J. Kane Jr., the court's administrative judge.

During yesterday's ceremony -- before a capacity crowd of about 400 in the George Howard county office building in Ellicott City -- speakers described Judge Staton as having deep and widespread Howard County roots.

Judge Staton lives in Clarksville with her husband, Kerry, and daughters Brooke, 6, and Lindsay, 3. Her family moved to the county in 1969 while she was in the seventh grade, and she attended Wilde Lake Middle School and Wilde Lake High School.

She attended Princeton University and the George Washington University School of Law in Washington.

In 12 years at the Baltimore law firm of Piper and Marbury, Judge Staton rose through the ranks as a clerk and associate to become a partner.

Many in the state's legal community who attended yesterday's ceremony praised Mr. Glendening for enhancing the diversity of the county's Circuit Court.

"Over the years, Howard County has been well-served by its judges," said Alice P. Clark, assistant public defender in the county. "So why, some may ask, is the issue of diversity important? It is important to our communities that all people meet the maximum of their potential."

Bobby Fine, president of the Howard County Women's Bar Association, said that members of the group "are glad to have another woman on the bench to make it more representative of those practicing in Howard County."

Now that they have been sworn in, Judge Leasure and Judge Staton will go through an orientation program that includes visiting criminal justice agencies in the county and working with the court's three judges. They will start handling criminal and civil cases in December.

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