Can cash tip scales of justice? Lawyers commonly make contributions to judges' races

March 24, 1996|By Norris P. West

IT DOESN'T INSPIRE confidence in the long-beleaguered judiciary when judges owe their jobs largely to campaign contributions from lawyers. Yet this is the case in courtrooms across the state, as demonstrated in a recent campaign for two Howard County circuit judgeships.

In Maryland, it is common for lawyers to give campaign contributions to Circuit Court judges and judicial candidates and then to bring cases before the very judges they helped to elect. It is also common for lawyers to wind up before judges who did not receive their support.

Can a judge possibly remain impartial when a political ally brings a case to court? Will a judge harbor prejudice against a lawyer who failed to contribute to the judge's campaign, or worse, contributed to the judge's opponent?

Maybe or maybe not. In theory, judges are supposed to embody fairness, and they often recuse themselves from a case if there is compelling reason to think they cannot be even-handed.

But close political-financial relationships between lawyers and judges can only enhance the public suspicion of a judicial system that is under fire from various sectors of society. And it fuels the notion that justice can't possibly be blind.

In Howard County, a bitter primary election battle for two judgeships has persuaded dozens of lawyers to funnel money into judicial campaign coffers.

Money flowed from sole practitioners and major law firms; from civil and criminal lawyers; from prosecutors and public defenders. Many of them appear so regularly in the Circuit Court that it is only a matter of time before they have cases before judges their money supported or opposed.

The lawyers either gave campaign contributions to Diane O. Leasure and her running mate, Donna Hill Staton, both of whom were recently appointed to Circuit Court slots, or the candidates who are trying to unseat them, District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and Jonathan Scott Smith.

The two slates of candidates combined to raise more than $150,000 for the primary race and figure to raise sizable sums for the decisive November general election. The money comes from direct contributions or expensive tickets to campaign fund-raisers.

As the 120-day campaign began, many lawyers chose sides, campaign finance reports show. Some bought $35 tickets to the first fund-raiser for the Gelfman-Smith campaign. Others purchased $100 tickets for the Hill Staton-Leasure fund-raiser. Then came a $60 event for Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith, where more well-known lawyers are listed in the finance report.

A small group of lawyers played it safe, contributing to both campaigns.

Attorneys who contribute contend that they only want to help the best candidates get elected to the 15-year terms and are not seeking preferential treatment in the courtroom.

Many lawyers insist that judges will put aside political allegiances in the courtroom. A typical response comes from Jeanine Rice, a Howard County prosecutor who supported the sitting judges. She dismissed concerns that politics would influence a judge's behavior in the courtroom.

"I would assume they have enough integrity to do the right thing regardless of who's standing in front of them," said Ms. Rice, a board member of the county's bar association. "Maybe I'm not as cynical as most people."

Despite the explanations, however, it is impossible to think that it looks like anything other than a conflict when a supporter appears before his judge.

The Maryland State Bar Association laments the fact that judicial candidates depend so heavily on lawyers to run successful campaigns and that attorneys might feel compelled to contribute.

"All judicial candidates are forced to go out and campaign, raising funds from lawyers who appeared before them," complained Janet Stidman Eveleth, a spokeswoman for the state bar, who said the situation is one reason why her organization opposes the idea of elected judgeships.

"Supposedly there's impartiality, but yes, I would think an attorney would be concerned about how he's going to be treated in the courtroom on the basis of whether he contributed to a judges campaign or might feel there is a reason to be concerned," Ms. Eveleth said.

A state commission is looking for ways to improve the judicial system, including the way judges are selected.

In Maryland, judges for District Court and appellate courts never face contested elections they are appointed to full terms by the governor. Every 10 years, appellate judges run unopposed and voters can choose to keep them for another term or throw them out. Gubernatorial appointees to Circuit Court, however, must defeat challengers to win full terms.

Eleanor M. Carey, who serves on the Commission on the Future of Maryland Courts, said the panel has not decided whether to recommend a constitutional change to abolish elections for circuit judges. She said the present system has some merits. In the past, she notes, elections have opened the judiciary for African-Americans and other minorities who were excluded from the bench, she says.

But Ms. Carey said the current system is flawed, if only by perception. "If a member of the public looks at the process and sees a lawyer contribute to a judge, that person will think the lawyer will get favorable treatment," she said.

Norris P. West is a reporter for The Sun who recently covered the Howard County judicial campaign.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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