Against judicial elections

Circuit court: Carroll attorney opted to avoid political donnybrook rather than accept appointment.

October 30, 1999

DAMIAN L. Halstad might have made a good Circuit Court judge, but we'll never know. The Westminster lawyer declined a recent appointment to the bench from Gov. Parris N. Glendening, citing an expected partisan political scramble in the primary election next March. "It would have made running for judge look like running for dog catcher," he said.

He's right. The shameful process of forcing Circuit Court judges to run a politicized, expensive campaign to retain their seat should be eliminated. That's no way to choose impartial judges, who end up raising campaign funds from lawyers and other interest groups that appear before the court.

In Maryland, only Circuit Court judges are subjected to this competitive popularity contest. And Circuit Court appointees are often challenged. The governor's appointment to the Frederick Circuit Court faces a political opponent next March. So do two recent appointees to the Baltimore County Circuit Court.

A Democrat and active campaigner for Governor Glendening, Mr. Halstad was likely to face strong opposition from several Republican contenders in a county that is overwhelmingly Republican.

While an incumbent enjoys the advantage on any ballot, it's also true that active political campaigns, and party mobilization, can make any challenger the victor. District Court judges, also with name recognition, sometimes seize the election opportunity to gain the higher Circuit Court position.

That happened in 1996 in Howard County, where a Glendening Circuit Court appointee was defeated in the general election by a District Court judge after a heated campaign.

A system of narrowing the list of nominees through an impartial judicial nominating panel, instituted 30 years ago, has helped eliminate blatant political patronage appointments to the bench.

Retention elections for Circuit Court appointees, in which they run on their record rather than against opponents, could be a safeguard for the electorate, as is done with appellate judges every 15 years. But political donnybrooks debase the integrity of the judicial system.

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