A choice of judges but little debate Election opposition is 1 against 9 sitting on city Circuit Court

July 27, 1998|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

For only the second time this decade, the sitting judges on Baltimore's principal trial court face Election Day opposition -- rekindling questions about how voters get information about those on the bench and whether judges should have to run for office.

By running for one of the nine Baltimore Circuit Court seats up for election this year, Assistant State's Attorney Page Croyder guaranteed that voters will have a choice, but not necessarily hear a spirited debate.

Although Croyder decries what she characterizes as the legal establishment's lock step endorsement of the nine sitting judges, she steadfastly refuses to criticize any of them by name.

For their part, the nine judges -- two veterans running for second 15-year terms and seven recent appointees facing the voters for the first time -- are relying mostly on the imprint of incumbency.

Two candidates' forums last week illustrated the tepid nature of the campaign. Both were long on details on the candidates' professional backgrounds and personal lives -- and short on details about what goes on in court.

Thursday night, at a meeting of the 43rd/44th Democratic Club at a union hall in lower Charles Village, candidates were asked about how they handle drug cases -- with an eye to treatment -- and their qualifications to be a judge.

The night before, at a joint meeting of the Mount Royal and New Democratic Club at a church in North Baltimore, Judges Allen L. Schwait and Evelyn O. Cannon explained what Schwait described as the "intricate and complex process one goes through to become a judge" but made no mention of Croyder's candidacy.

That process, they said, includes review by a judicial nominating commission and gubernatorial appointment. Judges then have to run for office.

"We've all been examined individually," said Cannon, one of seven sitting judges who attended the meeting. But she added, "We're very much united as a team."

Then it was Croyder's turn.

"Not every one of the nine has earned the title of trust," she said, playing off the incumbents' slogan, "Elect Only the 9 Trusted Judges." But she offered no specifics, saying, "I have had the courage to stand up and tell you this."

After the meeting, one judge brushed off Croyder's comments.

"She has a right to run," said Judge Alfred Nance. "We feel confident based on our credentials and our service."

Croyder -- who is on a leave of absence from her job as a division chief of a central booking unit that screens criminal cases -- is exercising that right in large part because of the lack of information about judicial performance.

She notes that complaints to the Judicial Disabilities Commission are kept confidential -- although the commission did make public last year a reprimand of Judge Kenneth L. Johnson, who is part of this year's judges' ticket, for having a lawyer handcuffed for speaking up for his client.

"Automatically, the sitting judges are endorsed. There is no discussion of performance in a public arena," Croyder said.

Seth Andersen, director of the Hunter Center for Judicial Selection at the American Judicature Society in Chicago,

acknowledges it's often difficult for the public to get "objective, comprehensive information about a judge's job performance."

The "best method" of providing that information is through nonpartisan Judicial Performance Commissions operating in five states, said Andersen, whose nonprofit group works to improve the judicial system. Those commissions survey lawyers, jurors, witnesses and others on a wide range of criteria and publish the results.

Croyder said she won't name individual judges but added, "If voters don't have sufficient information about the judges, then vote for me." Her slogan: "Judge for Yourself."

Croyder, who almost backed out of the race the day before the withdrawal deadline, says running against the judges is "daunting."

As of November, the sitting judges' campaign committee had raised $87,756 and had $21,685 in cash, according to campaign finance reports. Croyder, who has not had to file a report, has a campaign treasurer but little money.

The judges' campaign supporters and contributors include many prominent members of Baltimore's bar, among them Croyder's boss, city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

Many say their support of the judges is not pro forma.

"I know that they're good because I've tried cases before most of them," said Michael G. Raimondi, principal counsel for the city's law department.

Though they do not discount her candidacy, campaign officials are coy in discussing Croyder.

"She's come out of the blue. I don't know whether she's qualified," said Kenneth L. Thompson, the judges' campaign chairman.

The judges echo that sentiment.

"I don't know her very well," said Judge John Carroll Byrnes. "She has a right to run and raise issues. I rest on the fact that we have been through a difficult process of interrogation and scrutiny."

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