Attorneys vying for Howard judgeship

11 applicants agree: County District Court is severely overloaded

May 17, 1998|By NANCY A. YOUSSEF | NANCY A. YOUSSEF,SUN STAFF

The 11 applicants for the new Howard County District Court judgeship have many similarities - all have been practicing attorneys for at least 12 years, many have worked for the state's attorney's office, nine have applied to become a district judge before, and all recognize that the county's courts are overloaded.

They welcome the judgeship designed to deal with that problem, even if they disagree about who should fill it.

"The backlog [of cases] is incredible," said one appilcant, Pamila Junette Brown, who has been counsel to the state Department of General Services since 1990. "I think I would add to the court's ability to find justice in a fair and expeditious way."

Michael A. Weal, an assistant state's attorney, agreed with Brown on the need for another judge.

"There is a tremendous backlog of cases. Adding a fifth judge is going to make all the difference in the world," said Weal, who has practiced his entire 24-year career in Howard County. "I know [the county's system] better than anyone."

Another applicant, Constantine James Sfekas, a lawyer in Ellicott City, says the backlog has had a critical impact on one of his cases. He has been representing for more than a year a client accused of assault, and in that time his key witness left for the Naval Academy, he said.

"There is no way I can get her to trial in time," Sfekas said. "We will have to ask for another continuance" for a case that ordinarily would have been decided by now.

Other applicants

The other applicants are: James F. Brewer, Cornielia Bright Gordon, Robert Norman Keehner, Mary Catherine O'Donnell, George Edwin Rippel Jr., Ann Elizabeth Singleton and David A. Titman, all private attorneys; and Senior Assistant State's Attorney Sue-Ellen Hantman.

The number of motor vehicle, criminal and civil cases in Howard County rose from about 87,400 in fiscal 1996 to more than 103,000 cases in fiscal 1997, according to a state report.

The number of civil cases alone rose 11.4 percent, the second-highest increase in the state.

"It's simple. The number of police officers eight years ago was 150, and now there are more than 300 officers," said District Judge James N. Vaughan.

"It's the volume of people" who have moved to the county, creating the need for a fifth District Court judge, he said.

Three of the candidates - Brown, Sfekas and Weal - were among the seven recommended for a 1996 District Court opening. Rippel and Singleton are first-time applicants.

Rippel - who practices general and defense law - said the fact that the position is new encouraged him to run.

"I have been giving this some thought for the last few years," he said. The new opening "certainly facilitated my decision."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed legislation creating the post - the first expansion of the court since 1989 - last month.

"It's all a balance of the cost and how elastic [the system] should be," said Martha F. Rasin, chief judge of Maryland's District Court system.

Application process

All the candidates will go before the 13-member judicial nominating commission - composed of lawyers and officials - at the end of September. The commission will recommend up to seven candidates to the governor. The final decision will likely be made by the governor elected in November after interviews with the recommended candidates.

David A. Carney, chairman of the nominating commission, said the commission will seek several characteristics in applicants.

"You're looking for people who are, first, legally qualified, who have strong litigation background, who have good temperament and judgment," Carney said. "The litigants, the lawyers, the state and the public need to feel comfortable."

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