Judges' contest becoming vitriolic Political barbs fly as 3 challengers face Glendening appointees

February 04, 1996|By James M. Coram and Norris P. West | James M. Coram and Norris P. West,SUN STAFF

In Maryland this primary season, the nastiest race is the Howard County Circuit Court judges' contest -- a normally genteel affair that this year involves the court's first female and black jurists, a caldron of party politics and xenophobia.

So vitriolic is the campaign leading to the March 5 primary that some judicial observers refer to it as a good reason to consider abolishing judicial elections.

The race -- pitting the county's first black Circuit judge and first female Circuit judge against three formidable challengers -- has shaken the normally reserved courthouse crowd and split the county's bar associations down the middle.

"It's really dividing people," said Bobbie Fine, president of the Women's Bar Association of Howard County. "Each camp is very strong in their belief. You can feel it when you walk into a room."

The battle began unfolding in October when Gov. Parris N. Glendening named Diane O. Leasure to be the county's first female Circuit Court judge and Donna Hill Staton as the county's first black Circuit Court judge.

The move was in keeping with his pledge to bring racial and gender diversity to Howard's highest court.

But even as Judge Hill Staton was being sworn in, Columbia attorney Jonathan Scott Smith and Lenore R. Gelfman -- a District Court judge who is married to television news personality Dick Gelfman -- were gearing up to challenge the appointees. The two entered the race Nov. 27.

A fifth candidate, lawyer Jay Fred Cohen, is a longtime Columbia resident who practices in Pikesville. Mr. Cohen, who entered the race Dec. 15, is waging a low-budget, populist campaign with help from fellow attorney-aviators.

All five candidates for the two $93,500-a-year positions are running in both primaries. The top two in each primary will be on the ballot in November.

Until they became judges, neither Judge Leasure nor Judge Hill Staton was part of the Howard courthouse crowd. Judge Hill Staton, a Clarksville resident, was a partner in the Baltimore law firm Piper & Marbury, and Judge Leasure, an Ellicott City resident, was a principal in the Prince George's County law firm of Fossett & Brugger.

Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith have made experience the critical issue in the campaign -- although some legal experts say other qualities in a judge are more important.

The pair issued a news release saying the appointees have weak backgrounds in criminal law. They also said Judge Hill Staton initially was rejected as "unqualified" by the state Judicial Nominating Commission for Howard County that recommended Judge Gelfman -- something commission Chairman David A. Carney denies.

Mr. Smith said the appointees might gain expertise but added, in a news conference last week, that the county "cannot afford judges with training wheels."

The incumbents started their campaign pledging to take the high road. But recently, they have taken some shots of their own.

Lin Eagan, their campaign chairman, said the challengers were creating a "carnival atmosphere" by waving at cars at intersections each morning and by bringing a pickup truck decked out with campaign slogans to their recent news conference outside the county courthouse.

Judge Hill Staton entered the fray last week, pointing out during a forum that Judge Gelfman once was rejected by a nominating commission. In an earlier forum, she said in passing that Judge Gelfman "hasn't practiced law in six years -- but that doesn't mean she's not qualified."

Judge Hill Staton later said she is disgusted by challengers' charges that she is unqualified. To the contrary, she said, Mr. Smith called her "highly qualified" after he interviewed her during his tenure on the nominating commission last year. Mr. Smith denies that.

Some legal experts discount experience in either criminal or civil law as the most important quality a judge should have.

"Patience, humility, respect for all the people who come into your courtroom, savvy and intelligence -- I think those are the real virtues," said Yale University law Professor Akhil Amar, adding that a smart judge can quickly learn how to handle criminal cases. "If you're talking about a long term, so what if the first year is a little rocky?"

Chief Judge Alan M. Wilner of the Court of Special Appeals said he prefers judicial temperament and the ability to apply the law rather than judicial experience.

"Substantive law, a good lawyer can learn. Judges can as well," said Judge Wilner, whose court annually reviews about 2,000 cases in which judicial error is claimed.

"I don't care how long you've been on the bench, there's always an area of law you haven't seen before," he said.

The experience that Judges Leasure and Hill Staton bring to the bench may be an advantage, Judge Wilner said.

Both have backgrounds in complex civil litigation that other judges on the county's five-member bench don't have, he said.

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