An unorthodox alliance of liberals and conservatives came together yesterday to tell legislators not to tamper with Maryland's system of requiring appointed Circuit Court judges to stand for election in contested races.
The long-dormant issue came to life briefly yesterday as the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee held a hearing on whether to change the system in the wake of the defeats of two African-American judges in the Baltimore suburbs in the last four years.
By calling the hearing, committee Chairman Walter M. Baker opened up a box that had been closed in the General Assembly since 1988, when his committee rejected by one vote a House-backed bill to scrap contested judicial elections. By the end of yesterday's debate, the panel seemed ready to nail it shut again.
Committee Republicans joined with African-American senators and a leading Democratic trial lawyer in expressing skepticism about proposals to replace the current system with one in which voters would cast a yes-or-no vote on judicial appointments - known as a "retention" election.
The Maryland Republican Party told the committee that contested elections are needed to counter Gov. Parris N. Glendening's "virulent partisan discrimination" in selecting judges.
Christopher West, counsel for the state GOP, said more than 90 percent of Glendening's 160 judicial appointments had gone to Democrats.
West said this pattern was the reason he and state GOP chairman Richard D. Bennett supported Baltimore County District Judge Robert Duggan in his successful challenge to Circuit Judge Alexander Wright Jr. in the spring primary election.
Duggan ousted Wright, a Glendening appointee and the first and only African-American on the Baltimore County Circuit Court, after the governor passed him over for the position.
Wright's defeat came almost four years after Howard County Circuit Judge Donna Hill Staton, a Glendening appointee and the first black on that court, lost her election bid to then-District Judge Lenore Gelfman.
Wright's loss brought calls from some black leaders and Glendening for a new look at Maryland's system of choosing circuit judges, who preside over major civil and criminal trials.
Opponents of contested judicial elections told the committee that politics, especially fund-raising, and jurisprudence don't mix.
Albert Winchester III, lobbyist for the Maryland State Bar Association, said the era when judgeships went almost exclusively to white males is over. "Women and minorities have fared much better in the appointive process than under the election process," he said.
But former Circuit Judge William Murphy Jr. and his father, William Murphy Sr., black lawyers who won election to the Baltimore bench after governors appointed white candidates, opposed a change.
The younger Murphy praised Glendening's appointing women and blacks to judgeships, but said minorities still need a route to challenge back-room politics
Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, said he worries that more and more "mavericks" are running for 15-year terms as circuit judges. But after the hearing, he said there aren't enough votes on his committee to approve a change in the 2001 legislative session.