THE FOUNDERS of this country were wise enough to know that by establishing three co-equal branches of government they were also creating an inherent tension. That is evident in current discussions on ways to hold Maryland judges accountable for their performance.
A commission charged with studying Maryland's courts and suggesting ways to improve them is poised to make some important recommendations for achieving that fine balance between respect for an independent judiciary and assurances to the public that judges are held accountable for their performance.
To spare state judges from the pitfalls inherent in fund-raising that is necessary for a successful campaign, the panel wants to abolish all contested judicial elections. But as a counterweight it would institute a performance evaluation system that could influence decisions on reappointing judges.
Judges accustomed to virtual autonomy and little or no feedback on the day-to-day operation of their courtrooms may initially be leery of evaluations. But the process goes two ways -- it can provide helpful advice to judges, as well as good information about the needs of judges and courts around the state. For instance, the commission anticipates that a good evaluation process could guide the chief judge and other judicial leaders in setting up sessions on subjects such as handling domestic violence cases or deciding how courts could best make use of computers and other technology.
In Maryland, where only Circuit Court judges are subject to contested elections, the state has been spared the unseemly scandals that have plagued the judiciary in other states. But until governors began selecting judges from a more diverse list of qualified candidates, the option of challenging sitting judges was about the only way minorities had to reach the bench. Now, however, a hotly contested judicial race in Howard County is proving that allowing challenges to sitting judges can cut both ways. That election threatens the seats of two women Circuit Court judges, including the county's first African-American judge.
This newspaper has long opposed contested judicial elections, and studies around the country bear out our belief that the quality of judges and the integrity of the bench are best served by a careful appointment process, along with a sound system of holding judges accountable.
Pub Date: 10/06/96