Balto. Co. judges get aggressive in election

But some lawyers call their fund-raising tactics extreme for bench seats

April 13, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

The four Baltimore County judges up for election next year have launched what they and others in the legal community describe as an exceptionally aggressive fund-raising campaign. The judges say their unprecedented effort is necessary if they want to retain their seats, but some lawyers say it is making them uncomfortable.

With 11 months to go before the primary, the judges have made public appearances and money-raising efforts -- including a "two-tiered" fund-raiser this month where ticket buyers who spend $125 go to the main event while those who pay $500 get a "private reception with the judges."

The early campaign is unlike any seen in Baltimore County, where, until recent years, judicial races have usually been sleepy and predictable affairs. But it fits with a national trend of judicial elections becoming more contentious and expensive, and shows how the tension between judicial integrity and political necessity is becoming more pronounced.

Many in the county's legal community are unhappy about the change.

"This tiered approach is unprecedented," said attorney Barry Steel, a regular critic of the judicial establishment, referring to this month's fund-raiser. "I mean, gubernatorial candidates do that. For judges, it is really unseemly. Even if you have judges who are models of integrity, the lawyers still think the judges are keeping score."

Some judges said they, too, were uncomfortable with the fund raising, but defended it as necessary.

"Personally, it's really offensive to me," said Judge Dana M. Levitz, an 18-year veteran of the Circuit Court who is one of the four up for re-election. "It is really troubling that I have to ask my friends for money. I could sit here and tell you 1,000 reasons why it is another example of how crazy this system is. But it's the system. And I don't apologize for doing it, because that's what we have to do."

The majority of lawyers interviewed for this article said they support the four sitting judges -- Vicki Ballou-Watts, Levitz, Susan M. Souder and John G. Turnbull II. But many also said they agreed with Steel about the nature of the campaign.

"It seems heavy-handed for me," said one Baltimore County lawyer, referring to the intricate campaign organization the judges have established, as well as the fund raising. "You'd think they were getting together for Operation Iraqi Freedom or something."

That lawyer, as well as many interviewed for this article, did not want his name used for fear of retribution in court. The judges and their supporters said they do not retaliate, whether for comments in the news media or for not buying tickets to campaign events.

In Maryland, Circuit Court judges run for election after they are appointed by the governor and again at the end of their 15-year terms. Except for those times, they are forbidden from participating in any political organization or activity. Anyone can challenge a sitting judge.

A number of bills were introduced in Annapolis this year to change the judicial election system, including one to do away with judicial elections, but all failed.

Given the apparent conflict between judicial impartiality and politics, some states, including Illinois, North Carolina and Wisconsin, have proposed reforms for judicial campaigns. In addition, the American Bar Association has made recommendations for judicial races such as state-set spending limits.

But in Baltimore County, the issue is relatively new. For years, judges easily won re-election. But in recent elections, challengers have knocked out incumbents.

"They're all running scared," said Frank Sliwka, a businessman active in county politics. "The reason they are doing this is because of the past terms."

The judges and their supporters acknowledge that previous elections, in the county and elsewhere, have changed the timbre of this campaign.

"We don't take our positions for granted," Souder said. "We are very mindful of what has happened."

Souder, who was appointed last year, worked on the unsuccessful 1996 campaign of Howard County Circuit Judge Donna Hill Staton, an appointee of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Staton was the first sitting judge in that county to lose a spot on the bench.

Souder also had the opportunity to observe last year's campaigns during what is widely considered the county's most contentious judicial election.

In that race, Patrick Cavanaugh challenged a ticket of sitting judges -- Michael J. Finifter, Ruth A. Jakubowski and Alexander Wright Jr. Cavanaugh had said that he most wanted to beat Finifter, a court novice considered close to Glendening. But it was Wright, widely regarded as a high-quality judge, who ended up losing his seat when he placed fourth. Wright also lost his seat on the bench in 2000, but was reappointed.

To the new group of sitting judges, the past defeats are worrisome.

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