Circuit Court race rages toward end Divisive campaign has ramifications beyond bench

Political cross-currents

Diversity, crime, appointment process among issues raised

Campaign 1996

November 03, 1996

The battle for Howard County's Circuit Court bench has been so bitter and contentious that the four candidates have sometimes gotten lost in the fray.

But two of them, not their handlers, soon will sit on the Circuit Court bench hearing cases, sentencing criminals, maneuvering through tricky litigation and potentially shaping the character of Howard's judiciary for 15 years.

Tuesday's election pits sitting Judges Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton against challengers Lenore R. Gelfman, a judge on the lower District Court, and Jonathan Scott Smith, a local attorney.

The election will climax a yearlong battle that began last fall when Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- noting a need for greater diversity on an all-white, all-male Circuit Court -- appointed Leasure and Hill Staton as the court's first female judges. Hill Staton is also the court's first black judge.

Gelfman and Smith soon challenged the appointees, charging that Glendening had put achieving diversity above qualifications.

The raucous campaign that has followed gained passion and complexity from a variety of political cross-currents.

After the primary, the candidates vowed to run gentler campaigns this fall, but the hostilities have resurfaced in recent weeks, in part because the race is about more than the Circuit Court bench.

It has been about the judicial appointment process that left some in the local legal community feeling snubbed, about the drive for diversity on the bench and the backlash against that, and about crime and the fear of crime. And it has been about efforts to capitalize on the recently sagging popularity of the governor.

In the end, it is believed to have been fiercer and more expensive -- $360,000 had been raised at last count -- than any other judicial race in Maryland history.

Although the two members of each ticket in the campaign have shared resources, campaign themes and common routes into the race, voters will choose from four candidates vying for two seats.

Each voter gets two votes, which can be cast for any two candidates. The candidates who finish first and second will become the circuit judges.

Profiles of the four candidates -- written by Caitlin Francke, Shanon D. Murray and Craig Timberg -- follow in alphabetical order:

Lenore R. Gelfman

Lenore R. Gelfman hasn't been campaigning as visibly as her running mate, Jonathan Scott Smith. She may not have to -- she's the favorite.

As the overall top vote-getter in the spring primary, she is widely expected to be one of the two winners Tuesday. The reason is name recognition: Her husband is television reporter Dick Gelfman, and she has been a district judge for seven years.

She attributes her recognition to the latter. "Reputation is paramount," Judge Gelfman says. "People recognize Dick, but they recognize me for me. It's a combination, really."

This is the third time Gelfman has sought a circuit judgeship. She applied in 1989 and 1995 and was recommended to the governor both times by a local nominating committee. She also applied in 1990 but was not nominated.

Local political observers say the main reason this race is so hotly contested is Gelfman's bitterness at being passed over by Glendening last year.

She plays down that assumption. "This is not a new phenomenon. A constitution mandates an election," she says. "I'm running because I believe the voters should make the decision."

Gelfman, 48 and the mother of three daughters, has lived in Howard for 23 years. Before being appointed to the District Court in 1989, she was a Baltimore prosecutor for two years and was in a Columbia law practice with her husband for 14 years.

Local attorneys say she has been considerate and fair on the bench. She teaches fellow judges at the Maryland Judicial Institute in Annapolis.

"I had a case once when my client lost, and as he was walking out of the courtroom, he said, 'You know, she's probably right,' " recalls Thomas E. Lloyd, an Ellicott City attorney and longtime Gelfman friend. "I had others who have lost, and they all agreed they had a fair trial. She's been tested, and she has measured up."

During the campaign, she and Smith have presented themselves as tough on crime. But her opponents call her a hypocrite, pointing to several cases in which they say she was too lenient.

In one, Gelfman gave an 18-month sentence to a repeat drunken driver who killed a man in a collision. The sentence was aimed at getting the offender treatment, she says.

When her record is called into question, Gelfman responds, "The prosecutor wants the toughest, most restrictive sentence. The defense attorney wants the lightest sentence. I, as the judge, want the most effective sentence."

She also has drawn fire from some in the local legal community for not distancing herself from Smith because of his aggressive campaigning.

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