Another chance for more diverse court Howard County: Thwarted at the polls, governor must eye District Court for balance.

November 13, 1996

THE ELECTORATE opted against diversity for the Howard County Circuit Court. Maryland's seriously flawed method of selecting circuit judges has left Howard with a bench that fails to mirror its population or the parties in courthouse disputes of the most serious civil and criminal nature. An all-white judiciary is incongruous in such a heterogenous, growing suburb.

Circuit Judge Donna Hill Staton was appointed last year as the county's first African-American jurist. Her loss in last week's election leaves Howard with two all-white courts. This is unsettling for the African-American community and other countians who believe the justice system must be perceived as fair to all.

Judge Hill Staton brought legitimacy that the Circuit Court had lacked. Justice in its courtrooms indeed may have been colorblind, but its composition left many to wonder. Many others would disagree about the importance of this perception. But would these people argue against diversity if an all-black judiciary ruled in a multicultural society?

For now, attention must turn to the District Court, a lower tribunal that handles less serious cases than the circuit bench. The voters' decision has made it more urgent for Gov. Parris N. Glendening to appoint minorities to the District Court, where two vacancies were created by District Judge R. Russell Sadler's retirement and Judge Lenore Gelfman's election to the Circuit Court.

District Court appointees are not subject to contested elections and the demeaning politicking these inspire. Only retention elections are held for those positions.

The Judicial Nominating Commission for Howard County did not help the governor when it recently recommended only one black lawyer among seven nominees to fill Judge Sadler's vacancy, although a number of African-Americans with strong legal backgrounds applied.

Pamila Junette Brown, 42, a Columbia resident who is an assistant attorney general, is the sole African-American candidate recommended by the commission as qualified.

In the wake of the election results, her chances would have to rise. But the governor has two shots at returning some degree of diversity to Howard's judiciary. He should act with deliberate speed.

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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