Accountability on the bench Byrnes, Johnson reappointed: Commission fulfilled its duty in scrutinizing judges.

September 29, 1997

DESPITE SOME COMPLAINTS, there did not seem to be sufficient reason to deny another 15-year term to two veterans of Baltimore City's Circuit Court, Judges Kenneth Lavon Johnson and John Carroll Byrnes. But whatever the discomfort for the two judges, reports that the city's judicial nominating commission was scrutinizing the performance of both men -- and that the possibility existed they could be denied a reappointment -- was a refreshing change from the days when citizens felt they had no way of holding judges accountable.

The principle of an independent judiciary is crucial to a sound system of justice. But when judges never have to answer to the people, the risk increases that their considerable power can be abused. Especially since the establishment of the District Court system 26 years ago, Maryland has been fortunate in the quality of its courts and judges.

That is largely because Maryland's judges are almost all appointed, not elected. Only Circuit Court judges have to face potential challengers, but that happens only once every 15 years. Unlike states where judgeships are fiercely contested, Maryland has not encountered the kind of corruption that can easily fester when judges are forced to raise large sums of money to finance election campaigns.

Judge Johnson and Judge Byrnes have now passed muster with the 13-member commission as well as with Gov. Parris Glendening. Next year, they and seven newly appointed colleagues will face the voters for approval. This newspaper has long opposed subjecting judges to contested elections, so we hope all the sitting judges will be re-elected. But we believe the chances of that happening are better now that the public has assurance judges do face scrutiny for reappointment, and that an appointment to the bench does not produce tenure regardless of performance.

Neither of the judges reappointed last week has been free of criticism. In fact, four complaints against Judge Johnson are now pending with the Judicial Disabilities Commission, largely having to do with what appears to be high-handed behavior in court. But the commission rightly concluded that those complaints were not serious enough to deny an otherwise experienced and productive judge another term on the bench.

Even so, we suspect Judge Johnson will perform his duties with greater awareness that his performance is open to scrutiny, something every judge ought to remember. Renominations to the bench were once routine. That is no longer the case -- thanks to a commission willing to hold judges accountable.

Pub Date: 9/29/97

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