Move to dump judicial elections gains fuel Study commission points to divisive race in Howard

September 15, 1996|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

When a state commission voted last week to recommend eliminating contested elections for Maryland's Circuit Court benches, a member of the panel pointed to Howard County's bitter judicial race as a perfect example of the reason.

"The nature of the campaigning, judges out waving signs, having to raise $200,000 from lawyers, raising the appearance of conflict of interest, even if there isn't any," said Eleanor M. Carey, a member of the executive committee of the Commission on the Future of Maryland Courts, which issued the draft recommendation Thursday. "Howard County is a good illustration of why we should not have elections for Circuit Court judges."

"It is not the best way to pick judges," she said.

The Howard County Circuit Court race has been one of the most expensive and contentious judicial races in the history of the state, one marked by $100-a-person fund-raisers, mudslinging, a pitched debate about diversity on the bench and bitter divisions within the local legal community.

Appointed Circuit Judges Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton -- the county's first female and first black judge, respectively -- will face District Judge Lenore F. Gelfman and local attorney Jonathan Scott Smith in the Nov. 5 general election.

Carey said Howard County's situation did not influence the commission, which was created by the General Assembly last year.

Instead of elections, the commission recommends that judges stand for uncontested retention election -- a yes-or-no vote on their performance -- in the first general election after their appointment by the governor and confirmation by the state Senate.

After a first term of 14 years -- instead of the current 15-year term -- they would undergo another retention election. Performance evaluations would be made public before the election.

After public hearings, the commission's final recommendations will be presented as part of a larger report on court reforms to Gov. Parris N. Glendening and General Assembly leaders by Dec. 15.

Glendening spokesman Raymond C. Feldmann said the governor will review the recommendations, adding it was too early to outline his position on judicial elections.

Amendment failed

Elections for the Circuit Court bench have been under fire for several years. Ending elections has long been the goal of Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Court of Appeals. A constitutional ++ amendment proposed in 1988 sought to abolish elections but failed in the state legislature.

Political observers, legislators and former judges say efforts to abolish elections have been opposed largely by black groups, which argue that elections are the only way to ensure access to a bench traditionally dominated by white men.

"The threat of blacks filing [for election] influences the judicial selection system," said Arthur Murphy, a political consultant whose father, William H. Murphy, and brother William H. Murphy Jr. were among about five blacks to win elections against sitting judges in Baltimore in the past 30 years. "The sitting judges know they will be challenged."

Racial issues

In Howard, the racial aspects of judicial elections have taken an ironic twist.

Gelfman and Smith, two white candidates arguing that the governor compromised quality for diversity in appointing Hill Staton and Leasure, are challenging the judges in an election, the tool many minorities and women see as their way of gaining access to the bench.

That has frustrated Howard County minority political leaders, for whom the stakes are high in he judicial race.

"Finally, we got a governor who gives us a level playing field [and] the first thing they do, when they didn't get their choice, is say, 'Hold it,' " Jenkins Odoms, president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter, said of the Howard judicial challengers.

"They are angry because the good old boy system has changed now and we've got a governor stepping forward for what is right," he said.

Howard residents often pride themselves on being progressive, but few blacks hold positions of power in the county. Until Hill Staton and Leasure were appointed, the Howard Circuit Court was the exclusive domain of white men.

"I think Howard County has benefited from seeing a black judge on the bench," said Charles L. Fuller, a past president of the Waring Mitchell Law Society, an African-American lawyers' group. "To remove that person from the bench would be a setback" for Howard County, he said.

Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a District 14B Republican who supports the challengers in the judicial race, said diversity should not be a criterion in selecting a judge because the responsibility is too critical.

'The best people'

"I'd hate to burden the decision with this kind of additional consideration," Flanagan said. "We need the best people to fill these spots."

But some voters' views of who is best are determined by the race of candidates, said Sherrilyn A. Ifill, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Law School.

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