Circuit circus Campaign is best evidence of why judges and electoral politics don't mix.

February 13, 1996

THIS NEWSPAPER has long had an editorial policy o supporting the sitting judges in Circuit Court elections. The process of politicking, fund-raising, coalition-building, etc. creates awkward situations for jurists. Neither does it seem to improve the public's grasp of what makes a good judge.

The circus now playing in the Circuit Court race in Howard County is a case in point. Judicial candidates stand on the roadside to wave to motorists. The TV-personality spouse of one candidate presses the flesh in parking lots. War chests are fattened with gifts from local lawyers who will take cases before this bench. Even supporters of the challenge to the sitting judges would be hard-pressed to argue that this process invites judicial quality.

Last year, Gov. Parris N. Glendening chose Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton to fill vacancies on the Circuit Court. Mr. Staton became the county's first black judge, and with Ms. Leasure, the county's first female Circuit Court judges. Both women reside in Howard, but were well-respected in their law work outside the county. In the March 5 primary, they are being opposed by District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and Columbia attorney Jonathan Scott Smith, running as a team, and another Columbia attorney, Jay Fred Cohen.

All of these candidates are clearly respected in their field. If there is anything this campaign has taught the public, however, it is that there is no set criteria that qualifies a lawyer for a judgeship, or a judge to serve on a higher court.

This governor often gets criticized -- and fairly so -- about lacking passion in his decision-making. One thing about which he was demonstrably passionate was the need for diversity on the bench in a racially mixed suburb such as Howard. Perhaps the county's circuit bench -- all-white, all-male for its 129 years -- has been sensitive enough in addressing women and minority issues. If so, then the court is unique among many other segments of society, such as the workplace or in politics, where there's been an acknowledgment that broadening the base from which public matters are decided is an improvement, not a detriment, over the ways things used to be. Unfortunately, the current campaign hasn't raised the level of discourse on this or any other issue related to the judicial system in Howard County.

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