A good opportunity to play politics

June 16, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- Despite years of well- intended prattle from people who should know better about ''taking the courts out of politics,'' judicial appointments in Maryland and just about everywhere else remain intensely political.

On the whole this is healthy. Judges are powerful officials whose decisions affect many lives. Legal poohbahs and good-government naifs may argue otherwise, but it's in the clear self-interest of the electorate not only to pay close attention to XTC the selection of judges, but to influence it as much and as often as possible.

Governor Parris N. Glendening will soon be faced with one of the most important appointments he will ever make, the replacement of the retiring Robert C. Murphy as chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. And few if any Marylanders are delusional enough to believe that politics can be excluded from this process.

But does the presence of politics damage the public interest? In this instance, as so often occurs, the most political decision may not only be the easiest for the governor, but the best for the public, for Maryland justice and for the court system as an institution.

Judge Murphy, who as chief judge has headed the Maryland judicial system for 24 years, faces mandatory retirement when he turns 70 in early October. He may well step down a little early so that his successor will be on board before the court starts hearing the cases on its fall calendar.

To fill his seat on the seven-judge Court of Appeals, the governor must pick a lawyer residing in Harford or Baltimore counties, Judge Murphy's home circuit. The next chief judge must be either that person or one of the other six judges now on the court.

So, here come the politics. Of those six incumbent judges, four -- all white men -- have quietly and with varying degrees of firmness sent signals that they don't want the appointment. The other two, Judge Robert M. Bell, who is black, and Judge Irma S. Raker, the court's only woman, would probably accept it. For a Democratic governor like Mr. Glendening, who needs strong support from black and female voters to stay in office, the situation at first glance looks ideal.

Both judges are qualified. Judge Bell, who is senior to Judge Raker on the Court of Appeals by two years and in the state court system by five years, is probably the leading candidate. He's a graduate of Morgan and of Harvard Law, is known as a serious and focused man, and would certainly be a credit to the state's highest court.

But there is another matter, too. Since Judge Murphy was appointed to the Court of Appeals, the Maryland court system has grown from 80 to 260 judges, and its annual budget has exploded from $4 million to $170 million. Across the state, all 24 local court systems -- clerks and all -- report to the chief judge. The administrative burden of the job is colossal.

The price of prestige

That's largely why four of the judges now on the court, Judges Howard S. Chasanow, John C. Eldridge, Robert L. Karwacki and Lawrence E. Rodowsky, have reservations about succeeding Judge Murphy. They're well aware that the new chief judge will have to be much more of an administrator than an intellectual leader of the court, and doubt that the increased pay and prestige would compensate for that.

Meanwhile, there is a talented administrator waiting in the wings. He is Chief Judge Alan M. Wilner of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals -- and a resident, fortuitously, of the Baltimore County circuit. He's well respected as a lawyer and believed to be Judge Murphy's preference as his successor.

So the situation may not be quite as clear-cut for our highly political governor as it first appeared.

If the governor names Judge Bell to succeed Judge Murphy, he will be instantly cheered. For not only will he have named the first black person to head the Maryland court system, but he will have done it on merit, by the book, without leapfrogging anyone over other qualified candidates for racial reasons alone.

But Judge Bell, who is now 52, has been a judge for more than 20 years. He has no prior administrative experience. Judge Murphy won't be the only insider suggesting to the governor that it would be more prudent to choose the ready-and-waiting Alan Wilner, a proven administrator, and then perhaps mitigate the inevitable outrage at Judge Wilner's whiteness and maleness by naming a new black judge to the Court of Special Appeals.

So the political pressures the governor is already feeling on this key appointment are coming from both inside and from outside. We may know more about him when we see which way he slides. On the other hand, we may only know who gave him the last push.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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