2 new judges likely to face challengers Circuit appointees must run for election in March 5 primary

Candidates being sought

Critics say governor politicized process in judicial selection

November 23, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Howard County's two newest Circuit judges have been on the bench less than two weeks, and already some local lawyers are looking to oust the pair, appointed as part of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's push for more gender and racial diversity on the bench.

Diane O. Leasure was sworn in Nov. 13, the first woman to become a Circuit Court judge in the county, and Donna Hill Staton was sworn in Monday, the first black to sit on the county's Circuit bench.

But many attorneys say Mr. Glendening has politicized the judicial nominating process and are looking for candidates who might successfully challenge the new judges in the March 5 primary. Both new judges must run in that primary.

Potential challengers most talked about are county attorney Jonathan Scott Smith, and District Court judges Louis A. Becker and Lenore Gelfman -- especially Judge Gelfman. All three had been on the list of nominees sent the governor that also included the names of Judge Leasure and Judge Staton.

About half the members of the local bar association want Judge Gelfman to run, members say. Many attorneys expect her announcement to come any day. Judge Gelfman is not commenting other than to say she has not filed. Candidates have until 9 p.m. Dec. 26 to file.

Judge Becker said he "hasn't made any final decision" and is "not in a position to comment." The judge noted that he has agreed to teach next semester at the University of Baltimore. "I had told them that if I were not appointed [circuit judge], I would teach again next semester," he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Smith -- who was the leading vote-getter among potential judicial nominees in an informal poll of local attorneys last September -- said he is thinking about getting into the primary.

"I've had a number of lawyers, elected officials and citizens speak to me" about running, he said. "In response, I am giving it serious consideration."

Others expect him either to team with Judge Gelfman -- or become her campaign manager, given his strong support for her.

"She has been on the [District] bench for six years and is extremely well thought of by the legal community and the citizens and elected officials," he said. "It is outrageous that she was overlooked. If one is looking for diversity, it is inexplicable to ignore such a worthy candidate as Judge Gelfman."

Supporters of Judge Leasure and Judge Staton say attorneys who oppose them are simply looking to get even with the governor by running what they consider strong candidates against the incumbent judges in the March 5 primary.

A potential challenge "has nothing to do with the qualifications of the existing judges," said attorney David A. Carney, who headed the county's Judicial Nominating Commission. However, some lawyers feel that attorneys who do not often try cases in Howard Circuit Court should not become judges in that court, he said.

Judge Leasure and Judge Staton are both county residents, but practiced outside the county. Judge Leasure was in Prince George's County, and Judge Staton in Baltimore.

"It is clear from the sentiments that many local attorneys are extremely disappointed to see the governor appoint two attorneys, both of whom have been out-of-county practitioners -- that's what's in their craw," Mr. Carney said.

Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, the last Howard Circuit judge appointed before Judge Leasure and Judge Staton, also had an out-of-county practice -- he was a deputy state attorney general.

The two newly appointed judges will get an unusually short honeymoon. Most new judges serve a year or two years before having to seek confirmation at the polls. Confirmation of the governor's judicial appointments is required under state law.

At this point, the Howard County bar appears evenly divided between those supporting Judge Leasure and Judge Staton and those who support a challenge.

"There is no way [a contested election with established challengers] can't be divisive as to the attorney community and the people of Howard County," said Fred Howard Silverstein, president of the Howard County Bar Association.

Some feel that having sitting judges stand for election so soon after their appointment is terrible; others object to what they perceive as undue influence by local politicians with the governor, Mr. Silverstein said.

Columbia attorney James K. Eagan is one of those who finds it distasteful that the new judges will have to think about getting elected at the same time they are handling cases.

"It is a sad commentary that you can't take politics out of the judiciary," he said. Judge Leasure and Judge Staton "are two great selections, and there is no reason in the world to think they are not going to do a good job."

For years, confirmation of gubernatorial judicial selections in Howard County was routine. But in 1990, attorney JoAnn Cornelia Woodson Branche changed that by challenging Judge James B. Dudley. She put a scare into his campaign by winning endorsement from a local Democratic club. Four years later, Elkridge attorney Charles Weyland challenged Judge Sweeney.

The sitting judges won handily in both elections, but the local bar association was solidly behind them -- something that is not true today and may not be March 5.

On that day, "the door may blow open," says Mr. Smith, the supporter of Judge Gelfman.

Mr. Eagan, who is supporting the sitting judges, agrees.

"The whole ball of twine may come unraveled," he said.

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