To candidate, contributions may seem to tip justice's scales

August 29, 2002|By Michael Olesker

STUART ROBINSON gets us to the heart of the American political dilemma. In Washington, the Republican White House owes its soul to big business, and the Democrats owe big labor. Across Maryland, everybody runs for office now with hands reaching into somebody's pockets. But, in Harford County, Robinson runs for a Circuit Court judgeship, and does it on nobody's dime but his own.

He will not reach for any campaign contributions, he says, or accept any that are offered. He will spend no one's money but his own. He says this keeps him clean and begins to remove the cynicism that surrounds politics across America.

"I view it as a battle for the conscience and soul of our system," says Robinson, a veteran Harford County attorney and civic activist. "There's a perception that if you contribute money, there's a payback down the road. I'm not accusing any individuals of anything. I'm talking about an unhealthy perception. It's particularly unhealthy when we're talking about our courts of law."

Some observers say this makes Robinson a Don Quixote figure, blindly tilting at windmills he cannot knock down. His opponents shrug at an electoral process they say cannot be altered. Robinson says change has to begin with one person taking one principled (and perhaps foolhardy) political step.

In American political life, money is the great stain that seeps from beneath backroom doors. At every level, the candidates strive to raise great sums of money but are compromised by the very process of public begging, and then compromised further by owing favors to those who bankrolled them.

"And, for a judge," says Robinson, who is running as an independent, "I think it's terrible. I don't think a judge should be partisan in terms of political party or having fund-raisers to raise money. That's why I'm paying for the campaign myself. No contributions of any kind. That way, lawyers don't have to worry about being in front of me who gave or didn't give."

He runs against Judge William O. Carr, the Democratic Harford County administrative judge, or Republican attorney Steven Scheinin, who will face each other in the Sept. 10 primary. Robinson, as an independent, does not face a ballot until November. Five judges sit on the county's Circuit Court, which hears major civil and criminal cases.

"At some point in time," says Robinson, "you have to step up and say, `We have to change the perception of a good old boy network where you go to the public and say they have to pay to play.' Lawyers contribute to judicial campaigns, and then they try cases in front of those judges. I don't believe anybody should appear in a courtroom who's given money to that judge's campaign. I don't think a system looks honest where a judge takes money from people who implicitly expect something in return."

For his part, Judge Carr agrees - up to a point.

"I also find it distasteful and inappropriate," Carr says. "Everybody who runs for judge feels that way. Unfortunately, we have a system where Circuit Court judges have to run for office. Unless you're independently wealthy and don't have a family to support - neither of which category I fall under - you have to run a campaign with money. I don't know what other options are open to us."

To which Robinson responds, "We all have choices. I'm not independently wealthy either. I'm not the Mellon Foundation by any means. I'm a working lawyer who's handled working people and small businesses. But, in order to keep yourself politically independent, you make the necessary arrangements on personal sacrifice. Judge Carr is doing what works for Judge Carr."

Carr says he'll probably raise conservatively, $60,000 to $80,000. Robinson says he'll spend about $20,000 to $25,000 of his own money. The other candidate, Scheinin, is running for a third time. On his first run, he got 10 percent of the vote. Then, 30 percent.

"Yeah, I'm considered a long shot," Scheinin concedes. He calls Robinson's decision "an empty gesture. I'll probably finance most of my own campaign. I might raise $500 in outside money. But, the way the game is played, lawyers only contribute to sitting judges anyway. People like Stu or me, they're not gonna get any lawyers' money."

Robinson, of course, is turning down all contributions - from lawyers or anyone else. As a political independent, he had to collect about 1,300 signatures - 1 percent of the county's registered voters - to get on the ballot. Robinson and about 50 friends collected 1,776 signatures. State elections officials say they can't remember anyone filing by petition to run for an elected bench seat.

Nor can anyone remember a serious political campaign - anywhere in America - in which contributors' money was taken completely out of the game.

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