2 new circuit judges win lawyers' endorsements Opponents angered by support in primary

January 24, 1996|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Because of an editing error, an article in yesterday's Howard County edition of The Sun erroneously referred to the challengers in the election for Howard County Circuit Court. Both District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith are challenging newly appointed judges Donna Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure in the March 5 primary.

The Sun regrets the error.

Howard County's two newest Circuit Court judges picked up the endorsement of one influential lawyers group yesterday and are expected to win support from another this week -- and their challengers are fuming.

The heat rose yesterday as the Maryland State Bar Association endorsed all circuit judges running in the March 5 primary, including Howard Circuit Judges Donna Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The state Women's Bar Association plans to follow suit later this week.

Ms. Leasure became the county's first female circuit judge Nov. 13. Ms. Hill Staton became the county's first black judge Nov. 20.

But in what is perhaps the most bitterly contested judicial race in the state, District Court Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and her challenger, attorney Jonathan Scott Smith, say the endorsements are wrongheaded.

It is the women's endorsement that is causing the most anger. Mr. Smith said he could understand the endorsement if Judge Gelfman were endorsed along with Judges Hill Staton and Leasure.

Judge Gelfman, who helped form the Howard County chapter of the Women's Bar Association, also finds the endorsement odd. Never in her memory has the state women's bar endorsed anyone, she said. The action is so "unprecedented" as to call into question the motivation behind it, she said.

And Attorney Betty Smith Adams, campaign manager for the Gelfman-Smith team, said last week in a press release anticipating the endorsement: "We can only speculate on what political pressure was applied to members of the Women's Bar Association of Maryland to make this unprecedented and controversial move."

By endorsing sitting judges, the women's bar may have jeopardized its tax-exempt status, the press release said -- something the group denies.

Chevy Fleischman, the Gelfman-Smith campaign team press secretary, called the state women's endorsement "a slap in the face to the Howard County chapter." She said the state group should have followed Howard County's lead.

The Howard County chapter abstained when asked whether it wanted to join the state group in sending Gov. Parris N. Glendening a letter of "support and appreciation for his leadership" in opening the judiciary to more women and minorities, said Bobbie Fine, president of the local chapter.

Susan Bayly, president of the state women's group, said a letter endorsing the sitting judges would be sent to the governor this week.

The organization's purpose is to "advance the interests of women in the legal profession. And it is the first time we have had a governor paying attention to this kind of issue," she said.

"We really feel the governor has been very supportive in putting women in judgeships, and we are very pleased with the governor's keeping his promise to increase the participation of women and minorities overall.

"We endorse and support the appointees," she said.

Ms. Fleischman said the Gelfman-Smith coalition has "tried to make sure [their campaign] was not an attack on Governor Glendening but these sort of endorsements are making it a political campaign."

Mr. Smith saw the women's endorsement as a slap not only at Judge Gelfman, but at himself.

"The various constituencies [endorsing the sitting judges] are promoting a very divisive agenda," he said. "Do we look at individual qualifications -- [in which he and Ms. Gelfman say they excel] -- or look solely at gender and race?"

Mr. Smith said he has been a leader in ensuring that women and minorities succeed in legal matters, adding that if that were the criteria, he and Judge Gelfman would have been endorsed.

He also found fault with the state bar association's support for what state bar President Robert T. Gonzales called "the sitting judge principle."

That principle holds that the governor has appointed the best qualified judges recommended by a judicial nominating committee.

"Consequently, support for the principle means support for the people who are the sitting judges," Mr. Gonzales said.

Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith contend that it is they who are best qualified to be circuit judges in Howard County and that the voters -- not the governor -- make that determination in a general election. Only circuit judges must be confirmed in a general election.

"To say that sitting judges should be appointed without a challenge completely disregards the [state] constitution," Mr. Smith said. "There is no sitting president principle, no sitting governor principle, no sitting county council principle. That's just the legal profession's wishful thinking."

Judge Gelfman said she doesn't have much of a problem with the state bar association's traditional endorsement of sitting judges.

But her campaign is clearly stung by the fact that, thus far, endorsements have gone against Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith.

Today, the campaign is expected to issue a news release decrying a "letter of support" recently given Judges Hill Staton and Leasure by the Howard County Democratic Central Committee.

Central Committee members "clearly violated their bylaws" and took an action "contrary and in violation of the [party's state] constitution" which prohibits endorsements in contested primaries, said Ms. Fleischman. "And some active Democrats may call for their impeachment."

Meanwhile, Jay Fred Cohen, a third candidate hoping to wrest a judgeship from the governor's appointees, said he was "not bent out of shape" by the endorsements.

"I've been too busy trying to convince people I have the best temperament and the best qualifications," he said. "It's a free world. If they want to support people who aren't the best, so be it."

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