Judges stand on records, quietly

Ethics, tradition keep 7 on appellate courts from campaigning for seats

October 26, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

No sign-waving. No slogans. No campaign.

That is the routine for judges seeking to retain their positions on the state's Court of Appeals and Court of Special Appeals.

Unopposed, seven appellate judges will be on ballots for a yes-or-no vote Nov. 5. One is running at-large and will appear on ballots statewide; six are running in designated regions.

They've been disinvited to candidate forums after explaining that, between tradition and ethics, they wouldn't say much beyond what their courts do and how they do it, and that they can't prejudge cases.

"You just make sure your name is on the ballot correctly and that you have fulfilled whatever requirements you did," said Judge Lynne A. Battaglia, who is seeking to keep her post on the state's top court from the western Maryland district. "You hope that people feel satisfied with what they know about you - if they know anything - if they feel satisfied with the state of the judiciary, with the Court of Appeals."

The seven-judge Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, has the last word on Maryland constitutional issues and other state matters, although it chooses the cases it wants to hear. The Court of Special Appeals, the intermediate appeals court, has 13 judges, but cases are heard by panels of three. The elections are nonpartisan and the judges don't raise money for their campaigns. All were appointed to their current positions by Democratic governors.

When filling a vacancy, the governor appoints a judge from a list of applicants forwarded by a screening committee. The judge then runs on his or her record in the next major election.

Whether voters know much about that record is a different matter.

"Not as much as they ought," said Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, who is on the ballot in Baltimore and who encourages judges to explain the workings of the judiciary at public events and educational forums.

Experts say that short of an advocacy campaign against appellate judges, the public tends not to be terribly enthusiastic about judicial elections.

The Maryland State Bar Association has endorsed the sitting appellate judges. No judicial commission rates them.

"Generally, what you seem to have is an uninformed electorate, even in states where there is a great effort to inform," said Allan Ashman, director of the Elmo B. Hunter Citizens Center for Judicial Selection at the American Judicature Society in Chicago.

State's election style

The organization favors Maryland's style of selection and retention, saying that it gives voters a voice. At the same time, judges are not put at a disadvantage given that their role prevents them from being able to respond fully to attacks by opponents on the ballot. Nothing, however, would prevent an organized group from mounting a campaign to boot a judge from an appeals bench.

"It would take someone with a real ax to grind to do something to get an appellate judge voted off the bench," said William L. Reynolds, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

But that is what has happened elsewhere, and the vulnerability of judges at the polls has been the subject of judicial discussion around the country. In 1986 voters turned out three California Supreme Court justices; in 1996, Tennessee voters ousted a state Supreme Court justice. In both instances, organized campaigns targeted the judges because of their courts' rulings.

Maryland is among 17 states to ask voters if appellate judges should stay on the job, and so far Maryland voters have kept their appellate judges on the bench. A constitutional amendment created the system in the mid-1970s, replacing contested appellate court elections. The change came amid several efforts to reorganize Maryland courts and after a series of circuit and appellate court contests. Circuit Court judges, who serve 15-year terms, can be contested on the ballot. District Court judges do not run at all.

Joseph F. Murphy Jr., the chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals, said he was more nervous in 1994 when he was on the ballot for continuance in office than in 1986, when he was a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge in a contested race.

"In the previous election there was campaigning," he explained. But on election night in 1994, he recalled, "I remember saying to my wife, `I will be back in private practice tomorrow.'"

Who's on the ballot

Here are the judges of the Court of Appeals who will appear on the ballot Nov. 5:

Battaglia, 56, of Columbia, will appear on ballots in Allegany, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett, Howard and Washington counties. She has been on the high court since January last year.

Bell, 59, will appear on Baltimore City ballots. He has been on the top court since 1991, and was named chief judge in 1996.

John C. Eldridge, 68, of Annapolis will appear on ballots in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties. He has been on the Court of Appeals since 1974.

Judges seeking voter approval to remain on the Court of Special Appeals are:

Arrie W. Davis, 62, of Baltimore will appear on ballots in the city. He has been an appellate judge since 1990.

Mary Ellen Barbera, 51, of Ellicott City will appear on ballots statewide.

Clayton Greene Jr., 51, of Severna Park will appear on ballots in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties.

J. Frederick Sharer, 64, of Cumberland will appear on ballots in Allegany, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett, Howard and Washington counties.

Barbera, Greene and Sharer were appointed to the court in January.

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