Judge choice in final stage

Glendening to select from among 5 lawyers for Circuit Court job

Decision expected soon

August 15, 1999|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Five Carroll County lawyers made the list of nominees sent Friday to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who is expected to name one of them soon to fill the Circuit Court vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Francis M. Arnold.

Two were finalists when a lower District Court judgeship opened in 1995: Michael M. Galloway, 53, a Democrat, and Charles Michael Preston, 53, an independent, who in June completed his term as Maryland State Bar Association president. Those working around the courthouse have indicated that Preston is a strong favorite for the position.

The other nominees are: Republican Thomas F. Stansfield, 49, and Democrats Fred S. Hecker, 39, and Damian L. Halstad, 37, who is president of the Westminster Common Council. Halstad is also viewed as a front-runner for the position.

The 13 local attorneys who applied were interviewed in alphabetical order from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Thursday by the judicial nominating commission, said Michael V. O'Malley, Maryland's assistant state court administrator. The commission had to nominate at least three candidates and no more than seven; five is the usual number.

The governor usually schedules interviews with the nominees before making a decision, O'Malley said. Although no deadline exists for the vacancy to be filled, O'Malley predicted that the selection would be made soon because the county has only two full-time judges.

The judge's position has an annual salary exceeding $107,000 and requires that the applicant be age 35 or older, a lawyer, a resident of Maryland for five years and of the county for six months.

After being appointed to the court, the new judge would have to run for office in the next general election -- probably in 2000 -- to keep the position. If Glendening delays the appointment, though, the next election could be pushed until 2002.

The nominees said they were thrilled to make the short list.

A lawyer since 1970, Preston, who just returned from an American Bar Association meeting in Atlanta, noted that he has been a nominee four times before -- for the Circuit Court in 1989 and 1990, and for the District Court in 1990 and 1995. His practice has gravitated recently toward criminal, land-use and contract law, and appellate work.

Hecker, who has a local family law practice, has twice been noted by Carroll's administrative judge, Raymond E. Beck Sr., for settling the most cases in a 2-yearold pretrial conference program.

Stansfield has served as Carroll's court-appointed domestic master for seven years, and hears divorce and custody cases, which make up the majority of the court's civil caseload, two to three times a week.

Galloway, whose practice focuses on family law and criminal cases, taught English and was a Westminster High School wrestling and football assistant coach for 10 years before entering law school in 1978. He served in the Carroll County state's attorney's office as an intern and a prosecutor until 1980, when he joined the law firm of Hoffman, Comfort, Galloway & Offutt, where Halstad is a partner.

"I'm honored to be among a group of candidates that I respect," Galloway said. He said that, with the exception of Halstad, who is in his firm, "I have practiced with all of them as opposing counsel, and I have the utmost respect for them."

Halstad, seen as the most politically well-connected of the nominees, is serving his second term on the Westminster council, having become its president in May. Before his election in 1993, he sat on the Carroll County Board of Zoning Appeals for two years.

Halstad was a law clerk for then-Circuit Judge Donald J. Gilmore from 1987 to 1989, and for now-retired Court of Special Appeals Judge John J. Garrity from 1989 to 1990. He also has been a settlement master since 1996, and teaches legal courses at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Halstad, who was reluctant to characterize the process as political, said, "I don't view it that way. I think there are five very strong contenders for the job. I'm not privy to the decision-making process. I basically accomplished what I set out to do, which was to make the short list.

"I think it's a good list. I would be very comfortable appearing in front of anyone on that list," he said.

The makeup of the judicial nominating commission was changed in recent years, taking power away from local bar associations and shifting it to the governor. Four lawyer members are elected by the Carroll County Bar Association, while the governor chooses two lawyers, six lay members, and the chairman, who need not be a lawyer.

The original 13 applicants included two women, but no minorities. Although Glendening has stressed diversity in his judicial appointments, O'Malley said that in his 18 years of experience, no list has been returned to the commission, except once when there were too few names.

Despite grumbling by some about the governor's supposed animosity toward predominantly Republican Carroll County, O'Malley said political affiliation did not figure in the commission's considerations, although it has come up in other jurisdictions.

"There was one jurisdiction that got into it," he said, referring to politics. "I stopped it."

Arnold reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in June but has been returning on senior status to assist Circuit Judges Beck and Luke K. Burns Jr. with the county's growing caseload. Arnold had served on the trial court since 1990, after 10 years as a District Court judge.

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