Judges' challenger wants to make case for openness

THIS JUST IN ...

July 17, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

PAGE CROYDER had until 5 o'clock last night to get her name off the September primary ballot, which would have left nine judges of the Baltimore Circuit Court smiling, happy and ready to mambo. She's the only candidate running against them.

But Croyder let the withdrawal deadline pass while she camped out in her Hampden rowhouse, cooking a batch of fried rice and plotting strategy for an underdog campaign with no money and very few supporters.

Here we have the unusual situation of a 42-year-old assistant state's attorney, a veteran of 11 years as a city prosecutor, running against a slate of nine judges who have been endorsed and financed by the legal and political establishment. She's taking an unpaid leave to do so. How audacious.

Page Croyder's entrance into the judicial election set off fireworks in certain chambers of the courthouse. Peers have told her she's foolish, that she will have no future in Maryland courts, that she can forget about ever being appointed to the bench. Some colleagues have expressed fear of losing their jobs in Baltimore's court system if they support her campaign.

But Croyder, chief of the central booking division of the state's attorney's office and author of a training manual for District Court prosecutors, says she's in for the duration.

Why?

Her answer actually sounds as if it is grounded in principle. It goes something like this:

The sitting judges should not be unopposed in an election. Voters have a right and a need to know about the judges and their records, but they won't get that information unless someone challenges the incumbents. The sitting judges are all protected and supported by the legal establishment, though many men and women within that establishment have problems with some of the candidates.

"There's pretty much agreement in the legal community that at least a couple of the judges aren't up to snuff," Croyder claims. "And yet no one will say that. No one will speak up. The sitting judges' campaign calls them 'Nine trusted judges.' Trusted by whom? They're trusted in the sense that they were selected through the system, nominated for judgeships and appointed [by the governor]. But they're not being judged on their performance. There is no system in place for the public to hear BTC what we hear, to know what we know in the legal community. There are problems with some of these judges, but the public is not getting that information."

The nine judges up for election include Kenneth Lavon Johnson, who himself challenged sitting judges in the election of 1982 and ended up as the top vote-getter. Last year, Johnson was nominated for another 15-year term despite a reprimand by the Commission on Judicial Disabilities. The governor went along with the nomination and reappointed him.

Under state law, however, Johnson must face voters for confirmation. He's joined on the primary ballot by eight other sitting judges seeking 15-year terms after interim appointments: Allen L. Schwait, Evelyn O. Cannon, William D. Quarles, John Carroll Byrnes, Alfred Nance, Marcella A. Holland, M. Brooke Murdock and Thomas J.S. Waxter Jr.

Of these, who does Croyder think unworthy of a vote? She won't say, yet. She believes her presence in the primary carries a message: Not all within the legal community are happy about all nine of these judges.

"This process of sitting judges running as a slate, without challenge, is a process that squelches information about the judges," she says. "People in the legal community know about bad judges, they know who they are, and yet it's an in-house club that discourages opposition. Some of the judges are good judges. What I'm saying is, every judge should be a good judge."

Still, Croyder won't get specific about "problems" with certain judges. She thinks her candidacy is statement enough, for now.

But it's not.

If Page Croyder is to really challenge the judges, then she has to take the next big step and tell us why they shouldn't all be elected. They've all passed muster with nominating committees and the governor. If there are serious issues we don't know about, then it's Croyder's role to say so, tough as that is. She assumed that role by filing her candidacy.

Unequal standing

While the judges she's challenging remain on the bench during the campaign season, Croyder has been forced to take an unpaid leave of absence from her job. Her boss, Patricia %J Jessamy, the state's attorney who is herself unopposed in the September primary and the November general election, says it's not state law but "office policy" that any employee seeking election take a leave to campaign. Jessamy pointed out that Traci Miller, another prosecutor, took a leave to campaign for Congress in 1996.

Is that a good policy?

Hard to say - because the rationale is unclear. Jessamy says it keeps everything "clean." She doesn't have to worry about getting complaints that one of her prosecutors campaigns on the job.

But the policy doesn't apply to Jessamy, facing her first election (albeit unopposed), or to the judges. They don't have to take leave to campaign, either. Page Croyder does.

This strikes me, prima facie, as unfair.

This court stands in recess until Monday.

Pub Date: 7/17/98

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