District Court vacancy draws 16 County lawyers vie for spot on bench opened by retirement

August 08, 1996|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

An article in the Aug. 8 Howard County edition of The Sun incorrectly characterized Christine Gage's position with the Howard County State's Attorney's Office. She is chief of the district court division of that office and also is a prosecutor.

The Sun regrets the error.

Pub Date: 8/09/96

As Howard County gears up for the finish of its contentious Circuit judge race, 16 lawyers have put their names in the hat to fill the seat of a retiring judge on the lower-profile District Court.

Although the two courts are separate entities down the road from each other, local political observers say questions raised about diversity on the Circuit bench could spill over into the District Court selection process.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

In addition, five African-Americans have applied for the District Court seat -- more than ever.

Citing Gov. Parris N. Glendening's push to appoint more women and minorities to the bench, some observers say diversity will be a key factor in deciding who will replace Judge R. Russell Sadler, who is retiring from the District Court next month.

Others predict Glendening will choose a white man to balance the appointment last year of the county's first female Circuit judge, Diane O. Leasure; and first black judge, Donna Hill Staton.

His choice of Leasure and Hill Staton stirred controversy about their qualifications and the process by which they were selected -- and spurred a bitter primary race that divided the county's legal community.

In the November general election, Leasure and Hill Staton will face District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith.

Some observers even predict the governor will wait for the outcome of the Circuit Court race before making his District Court choice.

Columbia attorney Bobbie Fine said there is a good chance Glendening will bide his time before deciding.

But, he added, "I don't think that the diversity issue is going to be the issue because we did get the last two appointments. A male has a better chance this time than before."

Howard County's four District judges handle mostly minor criminal and civil matters such as traffic citations and disputes involving less than $10,000.

Applicants for the seat include four prosecutors from the state's attorney's office, a federal prosecutor, the public defender for Howard and Carroll counties, an administrative law judge and local attorneys.

"It's a very diverse group representing all ages and areas of practice in the bar," Columbia attorney James K. Eagan III said.

Eagan sits on the 13-member Judicial Nominating Commission that will interview the candidates Sept. 18.

The commission, made up of seven attorneys and six lay people, then will send the names of up to seven of the applicants to Glendening, who will select one.

Unlike Circuit judges, who must participate in a general election in which they can be challenged, District judges are confirmed to their 10-year terms only by the Senate.

Legal sources say Columbia attorney Neil E. Axel is one of the strongest contenders for the District spot. Axel, 46, focuses on divorces and child-custody cases, and has sat on several state and bar committees dealing with alcohol and drug abuse. He made the Judicial Nominating Commission's short list for the last Circuit Court appointment.

Others mentioned as top contenders are Alice Gail Clark, an assistant public defender; Carol A. Hanson, district public defender for Howard and Carroll counties; James E. Henson Sr., administrator of the Office of Human Rights; and Michael A. Weal, a senior assistant state's attorney.

Five of the applicants -- including Clark and Henson -- are African-American.

"It's good. It's about time. We'll have enough there to make a valid selection," said Walter F. Closson, an assistant state's attorney in the child support division. "Until the last appointments, the court was all white. The [District] Court has never had an African-American man."

How large a role diversity will play in selecting the judge is unclear, but many observers say the outcome of the Circuit Court election in November will have direct bearing on the District Court appointment.

Some predict Glendening will wait until after the election to decide. If Hill Staton loses, there may be renewed pressure for him to name an African-American to the District Court. And if Smith wins, there could be more pressure to appoint a woman to the lower bench.

But a Glendening spokesman, Raymond C. Feldmann, said the timing of the election would have little bearing on the governor's choice for the District seat.

"I am sure he will select the most qualified person, irrespective of whatever is happening in with the election at the Circuit Court level," Feldmann said.

Judge candidates

Those who have applied for the District Court opening are:

* Neil Edward Axel, 46, a Columbia attorney who has practiced mostly domestic law.

* James Francis Brewer, who has a general practice in Arbutus. The Glenwood resident handles domestic cases, criminal defense work and worker compensation.

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