GOP rival brands 2 judges as outsiders Appointment of Leasure, Hill Staton caused 'outrage,' Smith says

Campaign 1996

February 16, 1996|By James M. Coram 6 | James M. Coram 6,SUN STAFF

Challenger Jonathan Scott Smith, the only Republican running for circuit judge in the March 5 primary, was on his home court last night and pressed it to his advantage.

After GOP congressional candidates had warmed up the audience at the Howard County Republican Club in Ellicott City with several rounds of Democrat-bashing, Mr. Smith branded the judges he is opposing in the November election as political outsiders whose appointments to the Circuit Court caused "outrage" in the Howard County legal community.

Mr. Smith and his running mate, District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, addressed the club last night, along with newly appointed circuit Judges Donna Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure, and a third challenger, Columbia attorney Jay Fred Cohen.

"There's a saying that every judge has a politician for a friend," Mr. Smith told the Republican group. "But in Howard County, a judge is a person who has [Democratic] Governor [Parris N.] Glendening and [Democratic County Councilman] Vernon Gray for a friend."

Mr. Glendening, in a move designed to bring gender and racial diversity to Howard's highest court, appointed Judge Leasure, the county's first female circuit judge, on Nov. 13 and appointed Judge Staton, the county's first black judge, on Nov. 20.

"There was unprecedented outrage in the county when the governor made those appointments," Mr. Smith said, "outrage that the governor had appointed on an interim basis people who had no experience in Howard County."

Judges Hill Staton and Leasure are longtime county residents who practiced law elsewhere. The former was a partner in a Baltimore law firm and Judge Leasure was a principal in a Prince George's County law firm.

Mr. Smith and Judge Gelfman, who also applied to fill Circuit Court vacancies and were on the list of nominees sent to the governor, refused to address Judge Leasure and Judge Hill Staton as "Judge" last night, instead referring to them as "interim appointees" with limited experience.

"When the governor appointed the interim appointees, people were concerned about their lack of experience," Judge Gelfman said. "The reason I'm running is because many of the lawyers, elected officials and private citizens have asked me to do so. I received the support of 85 percent of the bar association, and the lawyers, frankly, are in the best postion to know" who would make the best judges, she said.

As she spoke, a campaign aide passed out a chart comparing Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith with Judges Leasure and Hill Staton, and Mr. Cohen.

The chart noted that Mr. Cohen -- who has been largely ignored by the other candidates in this race -- is 64 and would be able to serve only six years of a 15-year term if elected because the mandatory retirement age is 70.

The chart also indicated that Judges Hill Staton and Leasure had made campaign contributions to Mr. Glendening and Mr. Gray but that Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith had not. Mr. Cohen's contribution box was checked "unknown."

The chart, which was distributed after Judges Leasure and Hill Staton had spoken, also indicated that Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith had aired their confidential applications for the judgeship but that the sitting judges had not. The chart noted that Mr. Cohen had not applied for a judgeship but that he had not provided the information regardless.

Judges Hill Staton and Leasure, who were the first speakers, did not lace their remarks with barbs, instead talking about their love for the county, their experience as lawyers and their skills as circuit judges.

Judge Leasure said the test of whether she and Judge Hill Staton are meritorious judges is easy: People should come and watch them.

One man said he had done exactly that and didn't like what he had seen. Judge Leasure was too lenient when sentencing a drunken driver, he said.

Judge Leasure said the only drunken driving cases she has dealt with have come to her from District Court requesting a jury trial. There are no jury trials in District Court.

In each instance, the state's attorney's office and the defendant agreed to a plea bargain that she accepted, Judge Leasure said.

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