Judgeship election takes a rough turn

Race: Michael J. Finifter is running against gossip and three others for a seat on Baltimore County's Circuit Court.

October 05, 2002|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Michael J. Finifter, the center of courthouse gossip and the target in a campaign rougher than any previous Baltimore County circuit judge's race, sat at his tidy desk this week sipping Sprite through a straw, methodically listing point after point why he should keep his job.

With his office papers as neat as the boxes on a spreadsheet, the judge in his chambers looks like the accountant and tax lawyer he was, far from the picture of controversy.

But this month, Finifter, 45, is a lightning rod.

Many in the legal community - including the wife of a judge who sits in a courtroom down the hall from Finifter's - are saying Finifter is unqualified for his job, especially compared to the three others running for three open slots on the Baltimore County bench.

Some are calling him a "political hack" who, as a Democratic legislator, managed to snag a judicial appointment from Gov. Parris N. Glendening in some nebulous political deal. They are aghast at his lack of courtroom experience, and skewer the list of his "substantial trials" he gave the Judicial Nominating Commission during the appointment process.

"I think I bring a great deal to this bench," said Finifter, who represented Pikesville in the Maryland House of Delegates for eight years. "As a lawyer, a member of the community, growing up here - all of these experiences are what I think you want in a judge. Somebody who doesn't put on a robe and think they've been transferred into some godlike creature."

It's easy to throw around rumors, he said. "I think the record speaks for itself."

That record does not include as much courtroom experience as other judicial appointees. But the piles of recommendations from individuals and statewide bar associations, the approval of the Judicial Nominating Commission, the 13-member panel which recommends judicial candidates to the governor, and his legal and financial background are more important, he said.

Sitting judges

The two judges running with him on the "sitting judges" ticket - they, too, were appointed by Glendening but must run for 15-year terms - have re-emphasized their support for Finifter.

Those judges, Alexander Wright Jr. and Ruth A. Jakubowski, have publicly criticized a recently established political action committee supporting them and Dundalk attorney Patrick Cavanaugh, the only candidate in the four-person race who is not a sitting judge.

The Judicial Excellence PAC's chairwoman is Molly H. Dugan, a college professor who is the wife of Circuit Judge Robert N. Dugan. "When a person is appointed to the Circuit Court, it's not a coronation," she said. "At the elections the citizens will decide who they want."

She said she started the PAC, which she said has about 85 members, when lawyers told her they wanted a ticket of Wright, Jakubowski and Cavanaugh.

"To have a wife of a sitting judge in Baltimore County working actively against another sitting judge is unprecedented," said Salvatore Anello, an attorney working with the sitting judges' campaign. "In fact, to have [Judge Dugan's] wife working in a campaign to defeat one of his fellow Circuit Court judges is offensive."

Finifter himself would not criticize Molly Dugan. Instead, he pushed his own qualifications, giving a tour of the framed degrees behind his desk - University of Maryland with honors and the highest grade point average in the University of Baltimore's Master's of Law in Taxation program. He said his academic achievements show how well he can learn new information.

A longtime Baltimore County resident, he said, his experience as a delegate and a community volunteer also shows he fits the official judicial criteria of integrity, temperament, impartiality, intellect, professional competence, community service and work ethic.

But others say there is no substitute for courtroom experience.

"It has been a concern of many members of the bar," said Warren Mix, an attorney who sits on the Judicial Nominating Commission. "It's almost mandatory to have some kind of experience."

Indeed, six months before the committee recommended Finifter as a Circuit Court judge, it rejected his application for a District Court judgeship, saying he was not qualified for the lower court's bench, Mix said. The committee changed its mind after Finifter supporters lobbied members with letters and phone calls.

Finifter's supporters said committee members "just didn't know him well enough" when they made their first decision.

Among the 30-plus cases on the list of "significant trials" Finifter gave to the committee, only eight took place in the past 10 years. Of those eight, two are trials in Maryland Tax Court, which is not a judicial branch court but an administrative agency that hears cases the same way as the Motor Vehicle Administration.

One case he listed from 1991 had no trial because the defendant never contested the plaintiff's claim. There is no defense counsel listed on the docket sheet.

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