2 to challenge new judges in March primary Candidates question the experience of governor's appointees

'Not a training ground'

Incumbents are first woman, black on circuit bench

November 29, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

A sitting judge and a prominent Columbia lawyer entered the race for Howard County Circuit Court yesterday, saying they have more experience than the pair recently appointed as part of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's move toward more gender and racial diversity on the bench.

Howard District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and lawyer Jonathan Scott Smith filed as candidates yesterday afternoon in Annapolis and will run as a team in the March 5 primary.

They will oppose Diane O. Leasure, who became the county's first female Circuit Court judge Nov. 13, and Donna Hill Staton, who was sworn in Nov. 20 as the county's first black circuit judge.

District Judge Louis A. Becker, who had been mentioned as a potential candidate, said yesterday that he does not plan to run.

Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith are the first in the state to challenge Circuit Court judges appointed since the governor named a commission in September to seek more diversity on the bench.

All Circuit Court appointees must be confirmed at the polls.

Mr. Smith said the two decided to mount the challenge because of what he called "an unprecedented outpouring of outrage at the appointments" made by the governor.

He and Judge Gelfman questioned whether the two newly appointed judges have sufficient experience for the Circuit Court posts, which have terms of 15 years and pay $93,500 annually.

"The Circuit Court is not a training ground," Judge Gelfman said. "The citizens, when going to court -- whether prosecutors, defendants or witnesses -- want fair, impartial judges who know the law and the amount of experience necessary to preside over the case."

Through a spokesman, Governor Glendening said yesterday that Judge Leasure and Judge Staton "are two extremely well-qualified judges, and I have complete confidence that they will do an excellent job. They have a wealth of legal background and experience, and they have the judicial temperament to do this job."

Neither Judge Leasure nor Judge Staton was available for comment. Calls were referred to Lin Eagan of Columbia, who is serving as their campaign manager.

But many county attorneys have voiced their resentment at what they see as primarily political appointments made by the governor to appease County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an East Columbia Democrat.

"Judicial appointments should not be politicized in the way that Governor Glendening has done," said Republican Del. Robert L. Flanagan, an Ellicott City lawyer and former Judiciary Committee member who is serving his third term in the House of Delegates.

House Minority Leader Robert W. Kittleman of West Friendship said that because judicial races are nonpartisan, he would "stay clear" of taking a stand on the challenge by Judge Gelfman, a Democrat, and Mr. Smith, a Republican.

But "apart from this issue, the governor has been pretty heavy-handed on a lot of issues -- very heavy-handed" rewarding his friends and punishing his political enemies, Mr. Kittleman said.

Supporters of the two gubernatorial appointees reject such claims.

"It's a shame this has become political," said Ms. Eagan. "These are two excellent, excellent, excellent sitting judges -- very well-qualified, able and competent. I can't imagine what the opposition would be."

Ms. Eagan issued a news release that included a list of prominent local lawyers supporting the new judges and touting their experience.

In announcing their candidacies, the two challengers said their campaign would focus on their expertise and the limited experience of what they called "interim appointees."

"In the past, the interim appointees had strong experience and strong support within the community and within the bar," Judge Gelfman said.

But Mr. Smith said "here, the situation is very different. We have two people who were virtually unknown in Howard County" when appointed.

Both candidates said they had scored higher than anyone else in polls conducted by the Howard County Bar Association.

Although Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith sought to portray Judge Staton as "unqualified" because she was not among the six names initially sent the governor by a local nominating committee, David Carney, chairman of that committee, said otherwise.

The fact that Judge Staton did not make the list the first time she applied did not mean she was unqualified, he said, but merely that she did not have a majority of votes saying she was "highly qualified."

A second nominating panel convened after the governor called for more gender and racial diversity on the bench found Ms. Staton highly qualified.

Republican Attorney Stephen Bounds, a county school board member, said he is supporting Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith because "highly qualified people in [Howard] county were bypassed" in favor of attorneys who practiced in two jurisdictions that supported the governor's election.

Judge Leasure and Judge Staton are Howard County residents but Judge Leasure practiced in Prince George's County and Judge Staton in Baltimore.

Mr. Bounds contended that a majority of local bar association members favor Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith.

But, he said, they are not saying so publicly because it involves "risk."

Mr. Bounds also said he is "nervous," but "if something is right, you have to support it and [supporting Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith] is the right thing to."

The filing deadline for the primary is 9 p.m. Dec. 26.

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