In the next four months, Gov. Parris N. Glendening will make one of his most critical State House decisions -- one that will give new leadership to Maryland's courts for the first time in a generation and will require deft political juggling.
Before October, Glendening must name a successor to Judge Robert C. Murphy, who at 69 faces mandatory retirement after 24 years as chief judge of Maryland's highest court.
Already, the competition to succeed Murphy as head of the Court of Appeals is under way. Judges who want the post -- or their champions -- are waging quiet but determined lobbying campaigns. They want to make sure their names are known to Glendening and his aides.
The governor's decision will not be easy. He must weigh the factors of race, gender, geography and political play, as well as ,, judicial and administrative abilities.
"He has a unique opportunity nobody's had," said a Glendening adviser.
"It's an opportunity, and a problem at the same time," the adviser said, referring to the political pressures Glendening will feel from various groups.
Reflecting how sensitive and politically charged the process is, many of the judges, lawyers, academics and governor's aides interviewed for this article agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.
Among the top candidates to run the seven-member appeals court and oversee the state's judicial branch are Judge Robert M. Bell, the court's only black judge and its youngest member; and Judge Alan M. Wilner, chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals, the state's lower appellate panel.
Also frequently mentioned is Judge Irma S. Raker, the most recent appointee to the Court of Appeals -- named in 1993 -- and the court's only woman.
But those are by no means the only names mentioned. The potential for others -- dark horses and outsiders -- is high, given the judicial jigsaw puzzle that Glendening is facing, and aides to the governor insist that the choice is still wide open.
Murphy declined to comment on the names he has heard to succeed him, but said he believes Glendening takes his judicial appointments very seriously.
"I'm personally very satisfied that merit is No. 1 on his list," the chief judge said. "And that's demonstrated itself by his appointments."
Yet, there is a political element to the process.
"I know the governor is going to want to appoint the best person, but I tend to believe there will be some political considerations," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., whose chamber must confirm the appointment.
In a sense, Glendening is faced with the grandest grab bag of political patronage there is -- the chance to make what amounts to a series of prestigious lifetime appointments.
The last governor to have such an opportunity to shape the judiciary was Marvin Mandel, who appointed both Murphy and )) Robert F. Sweeney, chief judge of the District Court since 1971, who is also facing mandatory retirement this fall.
Diversity to carry weight
Despite administration assertions that Glendening's pledge for diversity -- his promise of more women and minorities on the bench -- will not be the determining factor, it is clear from interviews that it will carry significant weight.
That is one of the reasons that Bell is so often mentioned.
Bell is a highly regarded 52-year-old appeals court judge from Baltimore who has been mentioned as a front-runner for the post since 1994.
That year, voters rejected a ballot question that would have allowed judges to continue on the bench until they are 75 -- ensuring that Murphy would have to retire this October.
Leading up to that election, Bell led a majority of Maryland's black judges in the effort to defeat the constitutional amendment to extend the mandatory retirement age of 70. He was assisted by retired appeals court Judge Harry A. Cole -- the first black appointed to the bench -- who said the question was designed solely to retain Murphy and Sweeney.
The effort by the Black Judges Conference fueled speculation that Bell would be the ultimate winner when Murphy retired. Also adding steam to that notion was that Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and his political strategist Larry S. Gibson -- both big supporters of Glendening -- are solidly backing Bell, along with the Legislative Black Caucus.
But Bell is considered a top-notch judge who does not need race or political allies to recommend him. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he has served on the District Court, Baltimore Circuit Court, the Court of Special Appeals and, since 1991, on the Court of Appeals.
Untested in administration
Unlike some of the other potential candidates, however, his administrative experience is untested -- and that is a key piece of the chief judge's responsibilities. In fact, the chief judge not only heads the court, but oversees the state's entire judiciary -- a $175 million bureaucracy that includes more than 250 judges on the appellate, circuit and district court levels.