Two challengers criticize sitting judges' experience Incumbents say foes disregard governor's selection process

January 30, 1996|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

A District Court judge and a Columbia attorney, challenging Howard County's newest Circuit Court judges in the March 5 primary, said yesterday that they are more qualified than either of the recent appointees -- and that they want the public to know that.

"We cannot afford judges with training wheels," attorney Jonathan Scott Smith said at a noon press conference outside the Circuit Courthouse, alleging that the appointed judges lack sufficient criminal trial experience.

Mr. Smith and District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman are running as a team against Circuit Judges Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton, who were appointed to the bench last last year by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

A third challenger, attorney Jay Fred Cohen, is also in the race. But Judges Hill Staton and Leasure are the focus of Mr. Smith's and Judge Gelfman's attacks in one of the most heated political campaigns in the county in years.

The newly appointed judges replied to yesterday's criticism of their experience by saying that their challengers are trying to overturn the governor's selection process.

The challengers' "continual harping on experience" is an attempt to "impeach the process," Judge Hill Staton said.

Judge Leasure said there is "a certain amount of hypocrisy" in Mr. Smith's comments, because he was on the judicial nominating committee that recommended her to the governor.

Added Judge Hill Staton: "We all went through the process, and we all came out equals" on the list of nominees sent the governor. The commission, which was in the best position to know the needs of this community, recommended us as highly qualified."

But at their press conference yesterday, the two judicial challengers contended that the appointees lack the criminal experience necessary for serving on the circuit bench.

Mr. Smith said that Judge Leasure "had no criminal experience whatsoever" before becoming a circuit judge Nov. 13 and that Judge Hill Staton had only "minimal experience" with criminal cases before she became a circuit judge Nov. 20.

By contrast, he said, both he and Judge Gelfman are former prosecutors with criminal law expertise.

Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith said they were the best-qualified candidates on a slate of nominees sent the governor last year by the county's judicial nominating committee. Judges Hill Staton and Leasure also were on that list, they said, but were appointed for political reasons.

Yesterday, the challengers made public the confidential applications they sent to the county's judicial nominating committee and called on the governor's appointees to do the same.

Although confidential, the applications often are shared with various bar associations. But it is rare for them to be aired beyond that.

Judge Gelfman, appointed a district judge by Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 1989, said she and Mr. Smith chose to make their applications public because "our campaign is of the people and to the people and we have a responsibility to provide as much information as possible to the people."

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