Aftermath of election worries lawyers Some fear tensions from judicial race

March 11, 1996|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer James M. Coram contributed to this article.

The 12-week judicial campaign that pitted lawyer vs. lawyer in Howard County brought out the adversarial best -- or worst -- in attorneys. For some, the debates were professional sport. But others fear the political tensions may now spill into courtrooms.

"It's as if we're waiting to exhale," says Columbia attorney Jo Glasco. "People are excited but want to get back to a sense of normalcy."

Arguments among lawyers over which two of the five candidates in the primary should serve as circuit judges were more common than personal injury suits.

Officials at the Maryland State Bar Association are disturbed by how the primary campaign divided Howard County's legal community.

Janet Stidman Eveleth, a state bar association spokeswoman, says the electioneering by lawyers was a good example of why the state bar opposes the idea of electing judges.

"This whole campaign, I think, has injured the judiciary and the legal profession," says Ms. Eveleth. "Our image isn't great to begin with, and this strikes another blow."

And because the primary came to a political draw -- weeding out only one of five candidates -- Bobbie Fine, president of the Howard County Women's Bar Association, says she thinks the hostilities within the profession will only continue through this fall's general election.

"It's still going to be hot," Ms. Fine says. Some lawyers are "so emotional, so apart" on the judicial race that they can't put their passions on hold, she says.

In the primary, local lawyers generally lined up either behind sitting Circuit Judges Donna Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure or their chief challengers, District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith.

About half the local lawyers said Gov. Parris N. Glendening played politics when he appointed Judge Leasure as the county's first female circuit judge and Judge Hill Staton as the county's first African-American judge. Had he not played politics, he would have promoted Judge Gelfman and appointed Mr. Smith, those lawyers said.

A roughly equal number of local attorneys praised the governor for taking a step they believe was long overdue. Judges Leasure and Hill Staton are not only good, but potentially great judges, they said. A smaller number of attorneys stayed on the fence.

Another battle in the fall

The four candidates will do battle again in the fall for the two circuit judgeships -- because the primary eliminated only attorney Jay Fred Cohen.

Many believe the electioneering will stay on hold until September. In the meantime, some legal observers say, the sitting judges are going to continue to be on trial in a sense -- with their opponents watching them for even the slightest error on the bench.

"Any case has the potential of being newsworthy, and when it's newsworthy, it can be viewed by the public in any way," says Joel M. Abramson, a Columbia attorney who supports the sitting judges.

He says Judges Leasure and Hill Staton now face the task of building solid reputations for making sound decisions from the bench.

But even if their track records by this fall are sterling, the Howard legal community is likely to become embroiled again in a divisive campaign.

And why not? Lawyers make their living arguing issues. They can compete zealously in the courtroom and then chat like old friends when court is adjourned. But the judicial race boiled to such a high point that even some hard-nosed lawyers were glad to take a recess from the campaign.

'A huge sigh of relief'

"The general feeling among practicing attorneys is a huge sigh of relief," says Jeanine L. Rice, an assistant state's attorney and board member of the Howard County Bar Association. "There is a lot of stress associated with this because of the animosity. I know I personally feel relieved now that the election is over because a great deal of tension has been lifted."

Ms. Rice, who supported the Leasure-Hill Staton campaign, says she has seen no evidence of campaign quarrels in the courthouse -- among either lawyers or judges. She blames the candidates' "hired guns" -- and not the candidates themselves -- for setting the negative tone of the primary. She says she hopes for a less divisive race this fall.

"The hired guns think a certain way and they have a 'professional' way of approaching campaigns that the ordinary citizen doesn't like," Ms. Rice says. "If candidates and incumbents were to think like regular citizens and run their campaign for regular people instead of like lawyers or political gurus, it would take a different tack."

Jason Shapiro, who has a busy law practice on Ellicott City's Main Street, says he was "shocked" by the campaign rhetoric from the political organizations behind the candidates.

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