Lawyers criticize Circuit Court challengers' campaign Gelfman-Smith team says tactics aren't negative

February 20, 1996|By Norris P. West and Shanon D. Murray | Norris P. West and Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

A group of high-powered Howard lawyers yesterday lashed out at the leading two Circuit Court challengers, calling their campaign tactics "shameful" and saying the newly appointed judges have broad support among county lawyers.

In the most recent skirmish in Howard County's battle of the bench, a dozen lawyers appeared at a news conference in Columbia to lend "high-road support" to Circuit Judges Donna Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure, who were appointed last fall and must stand for election for 15-year terms in the March 5 primary.

The lawyers said they wanted to dispel the notion that most county lawyers support two challengers for the judgeships -- District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and Jonathan Scott Smith. They also responded to campaign attacks by the Gelfman-Smith team, who claim to be best qualified for the bench and once referred to the incumbents as judges "on training wheels."

The "training wheels" remark irked Ann M. Balcerzak, a member of the state Judicial Nominating Commission for Howard County, which reviewed applicants for the two positions filled by the new judges.

"That's in line with saying, 'Your mother wears army boots,' " said Ms. Balcerzak, who was among the 12 lawyers supporting the sitting judges.

Challengers deny attacks

In a later phone interview, Chevy Fleischman, a spokeswoman for the Gelfman-Smith team, said the Leasure-Hill Staton campaign has fired some salvos of its own, calling the contenders "whiners" in literature mailed to voters.

"Our entire campaign was calling for an open campaign and an upbeat campaign," said Ms. Fleischman. "They're the ones that are making negative attacks."

She said her campaign has no regret about making the "training wheels" remark but said it respects the judges. "They hold a high office in Maryland," Ms. Fleischman said. "Simply what we're trying to say is that this is a judicial campaign, and voters have to make a decision on who's best qualified."

Neither Judge Leasure nor Judge Hill Staton appeared at the lawyers' news conference at the law office of Levan, Schimel, Belman & Abramson.

Powerful lawyers

The high-powered legal lineup included the immediate past president of the Maryland State Bar Association president, four former Howard County Bar Association presidents and a former president of the Waring Mitchell Law Society in Howard County.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed Judges Leasure and Hill Staton from two lists of candidates recommended by the Judicial Nominating Commission. They filled vacancies created by the retirement of Judge Cornelius F. Sybert and the establishment of a fifth circuit judgeship in the county.

Angered by the appointments, Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith, who also were recommended by the commission, launched an acrid challenge, contending they had more experience that the governor's choices.

Columbia resident Jay Fred Cohen, who practices law in Pikesville, entered the race as the fifth contender for one of the judgeships.

The lawyers at yesterday's event criticized morning rush-hour sign-waving by Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith and their critical statements as undignified.

"It really is a shameful and telling commentary on the whole process," said William Cook, a Columbia attorney. "We need to keep the politicians on the corners and out of the courthouse."

Attorney Neil Axel dismissed contentions by Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith that they have superior experience in criminal law. He said the governor picked judges who scored high in integrity, wisdom and legal knowledge.

"Simply being experienced in one area of the law or another does not make someone a fine circuit judge," said Mr. Axel, who was among the 10 judicial nominees for judge and is honorary co-chair of the Hill Staton-Leasure campaign team.

He said the challengers were disingenuous in saying the new

judges owed their appointments to political favoritism, because all of the nominees sought support from politicians.

Gelfman-Smith supporters say Mr. Glendening picked Judge Hill Staton to reward Councilman C. Vernon Gray and selected Judge Leasure because she was a partner in a top law firm in Prince George's County, the governor's base.

Mr. Glendening said in an interview earlier this month that several lawmakers had urged him to select Judge Gelfman.

Earlier yesterday, the Howard County African-American Coalition endorsed Judges Leasure and Hill Staton.

The coalition cited the judges' experience, education and judicial temperament as deciding factors in endorsing them over challengers Judge Gelfman, Mr. Smith and Mr. Cohen.

The 2-year-old political advocacy group touted Judge Hill Staton's Ivy League education from Princeton University and her partnership in the prestigious Baltimore Piper & Marbury law firm as "impeccable qualifications."

Said Sherman Howell, the coalition's vice president of legislative affairs, "She's a blue-chip candidate."

Added the coalition chairman, the Rev. Robert A. F. Turner: "Diane Leasure went through the process and we are concurring with the governor's appointment."

The coalition, which represents 50 organizations countywide, pressured Mr. Glendening to diversify the county's formerly all-white male bench.

"Diversity or no diversity, we don't want to overshadow the fact that [Judges Leasure and Hill Staton] are qualified," Mr. Howell said.

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