Circuit Court candidates spar over electing judges Two appointees, challengers debate at Elkridge meeting

September 27, 1996|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

In an article in Friday's Howard County edition of The Sun, the place where Howard County Circuit Judge Donna Hill Staton did her prior legal work was stated incorrectly. Before becoming a judge, she worked in Baltimore.

The Sun regrets the error.

The four candidates for the Howard County Circuit Court faced off last night for the first time during the general election campaign, and although the event wasn't set up as a debate, it quickly became one.

Sitting Judge Diane O. Leasure's stated dislike for contested elections of judges angered the challengers, District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The challengers and Leasure and Circuit Judge Donna Hill Staton, the latter two appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening in November, are running for 15-year terms on the bench.

Before an audience of about three dozen people at a meeting of the Elkridge Community Association, Leasure said that because she doesn't "like the process," she is in favor of the recent recommendation by the state Commission on the Future of Maryland Courts that the election of circuit judges be eliminated.

"I'm not a politician by choice," she said. "I became one solely because there are people who chose to challenge the appointments and make it political."

Smith said those who support the recommendation doubt county voters' "intelligence to make a decision on who they want to represent them. It's an insult to the people of this county."

Members of the state commission pointed to Howard's bitter judicial race as a reason for scrapping judges' elections.

The March primary was one of the most expensive and contentious judicial races in the history of the state. Hill Staton and Leasure won the Democratic primary, and Gelfman and Smith won the Republican primary.

All four candidates have promised that the campaign leading up to the Nov. 5 election will be kinder and gentler.

The sharp exchange between Leasure and Smith was the only one of the night. For the most part, the candidates opted for subtle swipes.

Gelfman said her longtime involvement in the county and the legal community has helped her on the District Court and can help her on the circuit bench because "it's a local position." That was a subtle dig at Leasure and Hill Staton's legal careers in Prince George's and Baltimore counties, respectively.

With her own subtle dig, Hill Staton referred to the District Court -- on which Gelfman serves -- as "traffic court and small claims court."

"It's important, but the work done there is very different from what's done in Circuit Court. Our responsibilities are very broad," she said.

Both of the sitting judges underscored their experience in criminal and civil cases since being appointed to the Circuit Court and to their endorsements from various bar associations in Maryland.

Taking a different tack, Smith outlined his position on crime instead of detailing his professional experience.

"The defining issue of the campaign is the explosion of violent crime in Howard County," Smith said as he stabbed the air with a stack of newspaper articles on crime.

"People have lost faith and confidence in the court system."

Smith, who is a defense attorney and a former prosecutor, said he supports the death penalty for "heinous murders" such as those of law enforcement officers and mandatory, no-parole prison sentences for repeat offenders.

"If you vote for Gelfman and Smith, you are going to see a difference in the way these cases are handled in Howard County," he said.

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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