Gender, race are points of contention Judicial challengers tell voters they are better qualified

February 11, 1996|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers James M. Coram and Shanon D. Murray contributed to this article.

Volatile issues of race and gender have arisen in the fierce electoral battle to unseat the first woman and first black to serve on the county's Circuit Court.

Until late last year, the Howard Circuit Court had been the exclusive domain of white males.

But Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- aiming to build a Maryland bench that more closely resembles the state's demographics -- appointed Diane O. Leasure as the first female circuit judge in county history and Donna Hill Staton as the county's first black judge.

In an interview last week, Mr. Glendening stressed that he appointed the best candidates irrespective of race.

But some Howard lawyers say the governor compromised quality for diversity -- and that's why they're supporting two of the three challengers in the March 5 primary: Columbia attorney Jonathan Scott Smith and District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman.

"You shouldn't be selected because of gender and race, and that's what happened in this case," complained D. Joseph May, a county lawyer.

Mr. Smith, a Republican, said the Democratic governor discriminated against him -- as a white male -- when filling one of two Circuit Court vacancies last fall.

He tells campaign audiences that he's learning how it feels to be a victim of race and gender bias.

"Honestly, for the first time in my life, I was no longer being judged on who I was as an individual," Mr. Smith said.

"To the minorities, I say that people who have felt the pain of discrimination should not be participants in anything that would inflict that kind of pain on anyone else," he said.

Mr. Smith was one of nine candidates -- including Judges Gelfman, Hill Staton and Leasure -- recommended by a state Judicial Nominating Commission. He finished first in a poll of county lawyers.

But Mr. Glendening chose Judge Hill Staton over Mr. Smith and Judge Leasure over Judge Gelfman.

"It seems to me that [the governor's] policy and pursuit of diversity was apparently the overriding criteria," Mr. Smith said.

His running mate, Judge Gelfman, said race and gender should be considered only if all other qualifications are equal.

"I don't want to be picked because I'm a female and I don't want to be overlooked because I'm a female," she said.

The third contender hoping to unseat the sitting judges, Columbia resident Jay Fred Cohen, also said race and gender should not matter.

"As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't make any difference. I have no problem with the judges I go before," said Mr. Cohen, a lawyer who practices in Pikesville. "I've lived in Columbia for 26 years. If you're prejudiced, you don't move into Columbia 26 years ago."

No compromise

In an interview, Mr. Glendening acknowledged that he aimed to add diversity to the Howard circuit bench with his appointments of Judges Staton Hill and Leasure, but that he did it without compromising quality.

He said interviews with all the recommended judicial candidates showed that his appointees "were head and shoulders above the other applicants."

"They're nice people," he said of Mr. Smith and Judge Gelfman. "But there's no doubt in my mind that I appointed the best."

The governor also noted that although he is striving for diversity, half his judicial appointments statewide have gone to white men.

Mr. Glendening said he found it "totally unacceptable" that there never had been a female or black circuit judge in Howard County.

He also said he was disturbed that there was only one African-American among the 95 people serving on Judicial Nominating Commissions in counties around the state.

He said women and blacks well qualified to serve as judges have been bypassed for years in Howard.

"There's no other conclusion you can draw when you take a county as large as Howard County with an intelligent population, one of the most diverse counties in the state, very progressive, and realize there was not one woman or African-American in the history of the Circuit Court," he said.

Role of diversity

Legal experts vary in their analysis of the importance of diversity on the bench.

Keith Wingate, a law professor specializing in civil procedure and federal courts at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, said racial and gender diversity gives courts the appearance of fairness in the eyes of all segments of a community.

"Although it is fundamentally important that either an appointed judge or an elected judge be qualified, it seems to me that there would be enough qualified women and minority candidates that you could have a bench that is both diverse and qualified," Mr. Wingate said.

But William Weston, professor of legal and judicial ethics at the University of Baltimore law school, noted that Mr. Glendening could have brought both quality and diversity to the Howard bench had he appointed District Judges Gelfman and Louis A. Becker to the circuit bench and named Judges Hill Staton and Leasure to county District Court openings.

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