Smith questions two sitting judges' criminal caseload Hill Staton, Leasure rebut challenger's implications

February 28, 1996|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,SUN STAFF

A challenger for the Howard Circuit Court bench angered two incumbent judges at a Republican women's luncheon yesterday when he implied that they are not handling their share of the court's criminal cases.

Attorney Jonathan Scott Smith said that he reviewed a

month of the Circuit Court's criminal docket and that he found that Judge Donna Hill Staton is named as the judge in only 8 percent of criminal cases while Judge Diane O. Leasure is listed for 10 percent. The court has five judges.

Judges Hill Staton and Leasure were appointed to the bench in October by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and have served since November.

"I can't explain why, but most of these cases are not being handled by the incumbent judges," Mr. Smith said in his five-minute speech to 24 guests at the Howard County Republican Women's Club meeting at the Hunan Manor Restaurant in Columbia's Owen Brown village.

After the challenger's presentation, Judge Hill Staton rose to "clear up some of Mr. Smith's confusion," she said.

Judge Hill Staton said criminal cases are handled more quickly because most result in plea bargains and require the court's time only when they involve accepting agreements between prosecutors and the defense, and for sentencing.

She said she and her four colleagues have rotated as the court's lead criminal judge and are presiding over the wide variety of court proceedings.

Judge Leasure added that the one type of case that dominates the court's criminal docket -- violations of probation -- would not yet come to her and Judge Hill Staton.

Those cases arrive in court when someone sentenced for a crime does not follow the conditions of release and returns to face a possibly harsher sentence. Such a case is handled by the judge who imposed the original sentence.

Having sat on the bench for only a short time, Judge Leasure said, only a few violation of probation cases have come before her and Judge Hill Staton, although she said they have picked up some cases in which retired Judge Cornelius F. Sybert issued the sentence.

"We're sitting on the bench," Judge Leasure said. "We're there ++ every day. We certainly know what our workload is and what we're doing."

Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, who did not attend the luncheon, agreed that violations of probation dominate the court's docket. He said it takes judges years to accumulate such cases.

In his presentation to the Republican women, Mr. Smith also said he was puzzled by the sitting judges' contention that civil cases require a larger amount of the court's time than criminal matters. The incumbents say they have spent 60 percent to 70 percent of their time on civil cases.

The challenger and his running mate, District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, have campaigned on the theme that they have more experience with criminal cases than the sitting judges. The incumbents have made their careers in complex civil litigation matters.

Mr. Smith acknowledged that the sitting judges are adept in civil law, but said people want judges with strong backgrounds in criminal law. He held up the Howard County section of The Sun and read headlines for some of the reported crimes -- strangers approaching children, a robbery, a carjacking and a body found.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the most important type of cases we care about in Howard County are criminal cases," he said.

For the most part, Judge Gelfman stayed out of the fray at yesterday's forum. But she backed up Mr. Smith, saying they were trying to make the point that they are more experienced than their opponents in criminal law.

Columbia attorney Jay Fred Cohen -- who described himself as "the fifth wheel" in the race -- did not enter the brief flare-up over the court's criminal docket. But he pounded home his campaign theme that he has more experience than all his opponents combined.

He added that he has the right temperament for a judge and would be independent.

"I think all five of us are nice," he said. "I just happen to be nicer. That's all."

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