Time to abolish circuit judge elections? Counterpoint: Politics aside

April 02, 2000|By Pamela J. White

I OPPOSE contested Circuit judge elections, because the very nature of a partisan election contradicts the ethical obligations of our sitting judges to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

A contested election requires campaigning for votes, fund-raising and making election promises, all of which run counter to basic judicial ethics. Maryland's Circuit judges are in the untenable position of having to wage an election campaign while they continue to act impartially, independently of any influences outside of the courtroom, and are forbidden from soliciting campaign contributions or commenting on cases or issues in their courtrooms. Circuit judges also must campaign for election after having demonstrated their qualifications and having been selected on their merits by the Judicial Nominating Commissions and recommended for appointment by the governor.

Here are more reasons why I oppose contested Circuit judge elections: Judges cannot appear impartial in a partisan election campaign. Our judicial ethics code explains that our judges must demonstrate the utmost integrity and independence from untoward influence or interference by legislators and government officials, and from the lawyers and business interests called on to contribute to sitting judges.

The process of a campaign moving throughout our communities also compromises the appearance of judicial independence. When our judges remove their black robes to shake thousands of hands at dozens of bull roasts and chicken dinners, and visit countless community groups, churches, synagogues and senior centers, they must remain silent, lest they suggest a position or identify an issue on which they are ethically barred from comment. Our judges cannot comment on cases or issues arising in Maryland courtrooms.

When I first was called upon to assist in an "Elect the Sitting Judges" campaign, the choice seemed simple enough to a young attorney hoping to catch the eye, if not the favor, of Baltimore's Circuit judges, before whom I expected to appear. I could contribute valuable time or money to the campaign. It was vaguely unsettling but an adventure to wear a sandwich-board sign emblazoned with the seven judges' names to solicit votes at the polls on Election Day. The judges, however, were still working at their underpaid, public service jobs, obliged to demonstrate their independence from political influences, listening intently and taking evidence impartially, and fairly resolving the legal disputes of Maryland citizens without worrying about the vagaries of politics. Sure ...

Judicial campaigning smacks of influence peddling, because lawyers and business and community leaders bear the burden of financing the sitting judges' campaigns. Our judges are ethically barred from directly soliciting the campaign funds necessary to pay the costs of campaign ads, literature and gas money used to look for votes from a shrinking electorate that doesn't know what the judges are running for, or against, particularly when a challenger is looking for a seat on the bench.

And the uglier the campaign in a contested election, the more expensive the effort and the more divisive the consequences, especially for members of the bar backing the "loser." Everybody loses, as partisan and racial posturing in a contested campaign overshadows any attention to our judges' competency, temperament and integrity on the bench.

Contested elections are the antithesis of the fact that sitting judges are well qualified and have been fully evaluated on their appointments to the Circuit bench by the governor.

The Judicial Nominating Commissions in each county are created by comprehensive executive order, and their members are well-informed and experienced in the process of identifying the most fully qualified applicants for judicial posts.

The problem is how to find applicants willing to withstand an election campaign on top of an underpaid public service job. Having been appointed up to two years before election, our sitting judges should be focused on justice and should not be obliged to spend their valuable time and resources in an election campaign.

It is difficult to conceive that a daily, grinding election campaign by sitting judges visiting different communities could benefit anyone, particularly as the judges are rendered mute about issues and cases of concern to each community. Whatever benefits might be derived as judicial candidates reach out for community support and gain broader perspective, the trade-off of family time and responsibilities is a significant reason for increasing numbers of candidates to forego judicial applications in the first place.

A contested judicial election is not the way for sitting judges to prove they are trustworthy and well-qualified to serve impartially and independently in all cases brought before our courts.

About the issue

On March 7, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Alexander Wright Jr. lost his bid for a 15-year term -- defeated by District Judge Robert N. Dugan.

Wright was the first and only black Circuit Court judge in the county.

In 1996, Donna Hill Staton, Howard County's first black judge, was defeated by District Court Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, in a campaign marked by racial issues.

Wright's defeat has reopened the debate over contested Circuit Court elections.

The governor appoints Circuit Court judges, but they must run for a full 15-year term in the following election.

Any lawyer older than 30 who wants a seat on the Circuit Court bench can challenge a sitting judge in those elections.

Pamela J. White is a member of the firm Ober Kaler Grimes & Shriver and has lived in Baltimore since 1976.

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