Changes slated for selection of state judiciary

Ehrlich to alter groups that recommend judges

`It became too political'

Committees to have more GOP members, lawyers

January 26, 2003|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Anticipating his turn to shape Maryland's bench, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. intends to reverse what he called his predecessor's custom of letting politics play too prominent a role in determining who becomes a judge - while he appoints more Republicans.

"Decisions made by judges play out in the lives of so many people in so many different ways you tend not to think about. I take it extremely seriously," Ehrlich said of his power to fill judicial vacancies.

"I think that there's a sense that this needs to return to that kind of heightened status, which I certainly want to do."

Naming judges is one of the Maryland governor's most powerful functions, along with devising the budget, wielding the veto pen and having the last word on whether a death row inmate lives or dies.

Judges in Maryland enjoy terms that generally last until forced retirement at 70. While Circuit Court judges must run for election after they are appointed, it is rare for one to lose.

Judges' rulings can set legal standards for everything from search-and-seizure procedures to how much money a plaintiff should get for medical malpractice to whether the government can take property from citizens to grandparents' rights to see their grandchildren.

Through appointments, a governor has the potential to shape the judiciary for decades longer than he is in office. Of the 271 appellate, circuit and district judges in Maryland, former Gov. Parris N. Glendening selected more than 60 percent (not counting reappointments).

As one of his first acts as governor, Ehrlich plans to change the composition of the commissions responsible for interviewing judicial candidates and suggesting nominees to the governor.

The commissions, which have no authority beyond the ability to recommend, were created by Gov. Marvin Mandel in the 1970s.

Currently there are 16 trial court commissions made up of 13 members each, and one 17-member commission for the state's two appellate courts.

Under Glendening, the members included six nonlawyers, appointed by him, and six lawyers, four of whom were elected by their peers and two appointed by him - a change he made in 1995. The governor also chose the commission chairman.

"There are a number of people who believe that it became too political, that potentially the governor would appoint people who would do his bidding. People lost their objectivity," said James Nolan, president of the Maryland State Bar Association.

Ehrlich, an attorney, plans to add more lawyers to the commissions. His administration - as well as his wife, Kendel, also an attorney - are discussing whether all the lawyer-members should be elected by fellow lawyers so the commissions would appear more independent.

"It's been my view that the system has become a little more politicized than it used to be," Ehrlich said. "And one way you remedy that problem, in my view, is to have more lawyers in the nominating commissions."

Still, Ehrlich knows as well as anyone that there is no way to excise politics from political appointments. He readily acknowledges that he will appoint more Republicans to the bench. (No appointees are left from his GOP predecessor, Spiro T. Agnew, who served between 1967 and 1969).

And the commissions are hardly free of politics. It is common - and accepted - for applicants to enlist sitting judges or others close to the governor or commission chairmen to make calls and write letters on their behalf.

Since Ehrlich came to office, hundreds of people have expressed interest in serving on the nominating commissions, some in hopes of getting more conservative judges elected, said Jervis S. Finney, Ehrlich's legal counsel.

But Ehrlich says party affiliation is not at the top of his list of judicial qualifications. He will not apply a litmus test to nominees on certain issues and he doesn't want judges to exert their personal ideology from the bench.

"I want lawyers who want to be judges, not legislators," Ehrlich said.

"This whole idea of getting on the bench because you couldn't get elected to the General Assembly - playing out your kind of philosophical orientation on the bench - is not a popular one with me," he said.

Equally important, he added, is temperament. As an attorney, "I have seen that judicial disease take hold at times, wherein someone who you think you know, and who has a certain demeanor and temperament, changes once they reach the bench," he said. "I am very sensitive to that issue. That disease is not a good one."

As for diversity, Ehrlich says it's "an important issue - a credibility issue. But by the same token, sometimes, in the past, the issue of merit got lost there." He believes the Maryland bar is sufficiently diverse to provide diverse candidates.

Lawyers across the state say they agree with the changes to the nominating commissions that Ehrlich is considering.

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