No candidate wins backing of lawyers Circuit Court challengers slip from 1995 surveys

Poll indicates "a division"

Bar association had never before failed to endorse

February 22, 1996|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,SUN STAFF

Howard County's bar association is so sharply divided by the heated Circuit Court race that in a recent poll of its members, none of the five candidates gained enough support to win the organization's endorsement.

It was the first time in the association's history that no candidate in a judicial race won the 70 percent approval from lawyers surveyed that is required to earn the group's endorsement, said Fred Howard Silverstein, president of the 420-member association.

"It certainly does seem to indicate there is a division," he said.

The poll closely represented the opinions of bar members, he said, drawing bigger responses than a pair of surveys last year seeking opinions on applicants for two vacant circuit judgeships.

Unlike the two previous surveys, the new poll brought good news to the incumbent judges -- Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton -- who had the lowest numbers of negative votes.

And the survey was a blow to two challengers -- District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and Columbia attorney Jonathan Scott Smith -- running mates who have been airing cable television commercials claiming that the Howard County Bar Association has "overwhelmingly recommended" them for circuit judgeships. They got the highest number of negative votes from the 262 lawyers responding, although Judge Gelfman also got the most positive votes.

Half the lawyers who said they knew Mr. Smith and 40 percent of those who said they knew Judge Gelfman said they weren't qualified for the bench based on integrity, competence and temperament.

"I assume now they're going to have to change their ads," Lin Eagan, campaign manager for the incumbent judges, said of the challengers. Her candidates got much higher percentages of positive votes among those familiar with them.

The fifth candidate, Columbia resident Jay Fred Cohen, who practices in Pikesville, dismissed the survey results. Of the 241 bar members who voted on him, two said they considered him qualified.

"It's the people who are going to elect me, not the bar," Mr. Cohen said.

Decline for Gelfman

Judge Gelfman received 136 votes as qualified, 52 percent of the 262 bar members who voted and more than anyone else in the field. But 92 lawyers said she wasn't qualified, the second-highest number of negative votes.

She did much worse than she did last year in the first of two bar polls that inspired the Gelfman-Smith TV commercial. In that poll in March, 86 percent of the lawyers responding recommended her for a circuit judgeship.

Mr. Smith didn't do as well as Judge Gelfman. Five months ago, he gained the approval of 93 percent of the responding lawyers. This time, 40 percent of bar members who voted said he was qualified. He got 105 negative votes, the most among the five candidates.

The Gelfman-Smith campaign called the poll a victory, saying incumbent judges typically garner the 70 percent approval and thus the bar association's endorsements.

Judge Hill Staton and Judge Leasure were appointed to fill vacancies on the bench by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and were sworn in in November.

Chevy Fleischman, spokeswoman for the Gelfman-Smith campaign, said local lawyers felt pressure from Mr. Glendening to favor his appointees.

Ms. Fleischman said the campaign plans to continue running the commercial claiming that the bar association supports the two challengers.

At the same time, she said, the lawyers' polls should make little difference to voters.

"The only endorsement we're looking for is the endorsement of voters on Election Day, and I think we're going to get that," she said.

The latest poll was the first to focus only on the five candidates who are running for 15-year terms in the March 5 primary.

Each bar member was permitted to vote in favor of two of the contenders.

The association's rules require such referendums to determine the organization's endorsements in judicial elections.

Incumbents less known

The incumbents were less known to bar members than the two leading challengers.

Of members voting, 33 percent said they were unfamiliar with Judge Hill Staton, and 29 percent said they did not know Judge Leasure.

But among the five contenders, the two incumbents got the highest percentage of favorable votes from those polled who said they knew the candidates.

Judge Leasure's approval was 73 percent among those who said they knew her. Judge Hill Staton got the nod from 64 percent of those who said they knew her.

Judge Gelfman was approved by 60 percent of voters who said they knew her, and Mr. Smith received positive votes from 50 percent of those who said they knew him.

In addition to two votes of approval, Mr. Cohen received 85 votes as unqualified and 154 as unknown.

Howard County Bar Association poll

Members of the Howard County Bar Association were asked whether the candidates possessed the integrity, temperament and professional competence to recommend them for judgeships. Each member could vote "yes" on two candidates.

Candidate .... .... Yes votes .... .. No votes .... .. Unknown

Jay Fred Cohen .... .. .2 .... .... . 85 .... .... ... 154

Lenore Gelfman .... ..136 ..... ... . 92 ..... .... .. 16

Donna Hill Staton .. ..06 ..... ..... 59 ...... .... . 82

Diane Leasure ...... .127 ..... ..... 48 ...... .... . 72

Jonathan Scott Smith .105 .... ..... 105 ...... ...... 35

SOURCE: Howard County Bar Association

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