How low can Circuit Court battle go? Smears, innuendo have been staples of judges' campaign

Contentious atmosphere

Local bar makes no endorsement for first time

Campaign 1996

February 23, 1996|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Norris P. West contributed to this article.

With less than two weeks of campaigning left until the March 5 primary, one question remains in Howard County's mean-spirited race for the Circuit Court bench: How low can it get?

Innuendo, smears and surreptitious charges are staples of this campaign.

Recent cheap shots include anonymous allegations that one of the five candidates cheated while in law school and that another failed the bar exam the first time around.

Some of the low blows can be traced directly to supporters of the two major slates in the race. One slate is made up of District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and Columbia attorney Jonathan Scott Smith, and the other of sitting Judges Donna Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure.

The charges include:

* The claim by officials in the Gelfman-Smith campaign that Judge Hill Staton failed to tell a judicial nominating commission about a suit in which she is mentioned -- a charge that has proven to be unfounded.

* The attempt by anonymous supporters of Judges Hill Staton and Leasure to publicize a 1989 ethics complaint against Mr. Smith that was examined and dismissed by the state's Attorney Grievance Commission.

The atmosphere is so contentious that when the Gelfman-Smith campaign mistakenly added two years to the age of candidate Jay Fred Cohen in a recent flier -- he is 62 -- the Columbia resident saw it as an intentional slight.

"If that's how they behave as candidates, what kind of stuff will they do as judges?" asked Mr. Cohen, an attorney who practices in Pikesville.

A Gelfman-Smith campaign aide called the error "an honest mistake," saying the campaign will give Mr. Cohen an official apology if he asks for one.

Glendening appointments

Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed Judge Hill Staton, who is the county's first black circuit judge, and Judge Leasure, who is the county's first female circuit judge, to the bench in November in an attempt to bring racial and gender diversity to Howard's highest court.

Some local attorneys were so disenchanted by the two appointments that they saw judges Hill Staton and Leasure as usurpers and turned to Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith as their champions.

And the divisions within the local bar association remain so deep that for the first time in its history, it is not endorsing any candidate in a Howard judicial race.

Tone set early

The tone of the campaign was set from the beginning.

In a news release announcing their candidacies, Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith alleged that Judge Hill Staton -- who is alluded to in the release but not named -- was rejected by a local judicial nominating commission as unqualified the first time she applied.

Commission Chairman David A. Carney said the charge is untrue.

More recently, officials in the Gelfman-Smith campaign have been trying to interest reporters in a story on whether Judge Hill Staton has properly disclosed to the local judicial nominating commission a lawsuit filed April 7 against the Baltimore firm of Piper and Marbury, where she was a partner.

'Frivolous' suit

Judge Hill Staton is mentioned in the pending suit but is not named as a defendant. The suit involves the firm's handling of a former client's personal injury suit. The attorney defending Piper and Marbury in the case has labeled the suit "frivolous."

Judge Hill Staton's attackers claim that she did not mention the suit on her second application to the commission June 20 -- an alleged omission that, they say, amounts to not truthfully answering a question calling for full disclosure to the commission.

Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith have aired their confidential applications in a news conference and have pressured Judges Hill Staton and Leasure to do the same -- with this point in mind.

An anonymous caller

A copy of Judge Hill Staton's June 20 application -- which was left by an anonymous caller last night in a sealed envelope near The Sun's Howard County office -- shows that Judge Hill Staton had not mentioned the suit in that application.

But according to other documents shown to The Sun by a source close to the judicial nominating commission, Judge Hill Staton filed an addendum to her application Aug. 2.

The addendum -- a letter to the state Administrative Office of the Courts -- disclosed the suit and the fact that she is named but not a defendant in it.

This letter then was sent to the local judicial nominating commission Sept. 14, before its deliberations, according to the source's documents.

"Once I learned of the suit I wanted to be sure I disclosed everything that could be relevant to my application," Judge Hill Staton said.

Judge Hill Staton says the fact that the Gelfman-Smith campaign has been raising questions about her application confirms for her a suspicion she shares with Judge Leasure -- "that Mr. Smith has been using our confidential applications to provide information to their campaign."

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