Politics' role in naming of judges debated Barbs continue to fly as primary vote nears

March 01, 1996|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The five candidates running for Howard County circuit judge in Tuesday's primary looked weary and drawn yesterday, but had enough energy left to hurl a few more barbs in what already is the nastiest political race in the state.

Leading the charge was Columbia lawyer Jonathan Scott Smith.

He told a standing-room audience of 102 at a League of Women Voters forum in Ellicott City last night that the judicial selection process "failed" last fall when Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed Diane O. Leasure as the first female judge on Howard's Circuit Court and Donna Hill Staton as its first African-American.

Mr. Smith, who has teamed with District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, hopes to topple the incumbents in Tuesday's the primary.

The appointment of Judges Leasure and Hill Staton "was politics in its ugliest, rawest form," Mr. Smith said. He was responding to a question about whether Maryland should continue the practice of making circuit appointees run for election in light of the negativity and lavish spending that has marked this campaign.

The governor's appointment of Judges Leasure and Hill Staton "does not reflect the will of the people," Mr. Smith said. "We need to take politics out of the courtroom and put experience in."

Mr. Smith and Judge Gelfman are running on the campaign slogan "Elect the Best," saying they are more qualified than the governor's appointees and that his appointments, therefore, were political.

"I personally trust the intelligence of the American people," Mr. Smith said. "I don't think the governor always knows best. The people should be entrusted with the decision."

A third challenger, Jay Fred Cohen, a Columbia resident with a law office in Pikesville, told the audience that "if you could take politics out of judicial appointments or elections, it would be fantastic," but it is impossible. If people doubt it, they should look at presidential appointees to the Supreme Court, he said.

Mr. Cohen said he got into the race because of the "conflict between the governor's choices and the lawyers' choices."

Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith say they are running because lawyers in a deeply divided local bar association have asked them to. "The people needed a third choice," Mr. Cohen said. "I've practiced 36 years and I've got a better temperament than anybody here."

Judges Hill Staton and Leasure spoke before hearing Mr. Smith's comments. Judges are accountable and people should vote on continuance in office, as is the case for appellate judges, they said.

"We're not politicians, we can't make promises, we can't take a position on what we might or might not do," said Judge Hill Staton. "I favor a different kind of election. The process by which we were appointed works."

Judge Leasure added: "It would be nice if the process changed. If it were more of a retention election, we would not be forced to raise money."

Tempers flared briefly during a forum earlier in the day at Howard Community College. that was marked by hard-hitting questions.

Judge Leasure said it would be a "breach of trust" for the incumbents to air their the confidential judicial applications , that were they submitted before their appointments to a judicial nominating group before their appointments -- a disclosure which that Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith have done.

And Judge Leasure accused Mr. Smith of betraying that trust by taking confidential information from the applications she and Judge Hill Staton had sent the local judicial nominating committee and using it in in the Gelfman-Smith campaign.

Mr. Smith, who was a member of the nominating committee that recommended Judge Leasure to the governor and who initially considered Judge Hill Staton's application, was incensed.

"It is totally untrue," he said of Judge Leasure's allegation. "I never shared those applications with anyone, I never showed them to anyone."

Judge Gelfman defended her running mate. , saying, "Jonathan is known as a lawyer's lawyer. To suggest otherwise is totally inappropriate." And as for making their own applications public, "That's only fair if you're the best," Judge Gelfman said. It is a claim she and Mr. Smith have been making since they entered the race late in November.

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