Circuit judge election fight shaping up

Balto. County challenge may hurt court, some fear

January 13, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Not long ago, Baltimore County judges up for election coasted into their 15-year terms. They did little campaigning, had few opponents and knew unanimous support from the legal community was just about inevitable.

But those days of county congeniality are past. For the third consecutive election cycle, opposition candidates are attempting to unseat incumbent Circuit Court judges, and local lawyers say they are bracing for another bitter fight.

At stake are not just the four spots on the bench, lawyers say, but the quality of future judicial candidates and the system itself. And because of the quirks in the way judges are elected - an especially important factor in the March primary, when few Republicans are expected to vote - many say the outcome is very much up in the air.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of incorrect information provided by the Baltimore County elections office, an article on Jan. 13 misstated the date Brenda A. Clark, a candidate for Baltimore County Circuit Court judge, switched her party affiliation. Clark changed from Democratic to Republican on Feb. 10, 2003.
The Sun regrets the error.

"There are worries about it," said G. Warren Mix, an attorney who sits on the county's judicial nominating committee. "This is a lot different [than in past elections], but that doesn't take away from the fact that crazy things can happen."

Although most voters probably can't name the candidates for judge this year, the incumbents are well known, and generally respected, in the legal community.

Two of the four sitting judges - John G. Turnbull II and Dana M. Levitz - have served 15-year terms and are up for re-election. The other two, Vicki Ballou-Watts and Susan Souder, were appointed by former Gov. Paris N. Glendening in April 2002.

They are the types of judges who, in years past, would never have worried about losing their jobs.

But the last two elections changed that.

In 2000, Robert N. Dugan, then a District Court judge, ran against two Glendening appointees for Circuit Court and won. In the next election, which split the legal community, lawyer Patrick Cavanaugh challenged the sitting-judge ticket and was voted onto the bench.

Given this recent history, lawyers were not surprised that challengers would once again try their luck.

But many also said that this year's election is different.

Unclear motivation

In 2000 and 2002, Dugan and Cavanaugh had specific problems with either a sitting judge or the appointment process, and they rallied significant grass-roots support.

This year's challengers - retired city lawyer David L. Saltzman and attorney Brenda A. Clark - offer only vague criticisms of the incumbents and the process, and will not identify which judge they feel is less qualified than they are.

"I have no idea why [this year's candidates] feel they want to run now," said Alfred L. Brennan Jr., a lawyer who added that he will vote for the sitting judges.

But Clark and Saltzman reject the idea that they have little reason to run.

"I've aspired to become a judge for a long time," Clark said. To her, a successful challenge will be a victory against what she sees as an overly political nominating system that once rejected her attempt to be a Circuit Court judge.

"This is just a regular-guy campaign," she said. "Those are my constituents, my supporters."

Saltzman, who lives in Pikesville, is relatively unknown in Baltimore County - court records show he has filed fewer than 12 cases in Baltimore County Circuit Court in the past decade. He is 67, which means he would serve only two years on the bench before mandatory retirement.

He has never applied for a judgeship through the established nominating process.

"I was too busy," he said. "Or too busy having leisure. There's something about the timing, the people, the circumstances that, to me, make it right now."

Every judicial race is affected by the fact that most people don't know the candidates. Many in the legal community believe voters simply pick the first names on the ballot, which lists candidates in alphabetical order.

This is one theory of how widely respected Baltimore County Circuit Judge Alexander Wright Jr. was knocked off the bench in 2000 and 2002. Although some say race played a role in his defeat - Wright is black, and would have been the first African-American voted to countywide office - many say the main issue was that his name began with "W."

This year, incumbent judges Turnbull and Souder are at the bottom of the ballot.

Turnbull, the administrative judge, is credited with the smooth operation of the county Circuit Court. He is also part of a county dynasty - the Turnbulls have long served in politics and law here.

But all that may mean less than the fact that his name starts with "T," some court-watchers say.

"Because of what happened to Wright, it's always a fear now," said Salvatore E. "Manny" Anello III, an attorney working on the sitting judges' campaign. "I can't assume that the ordinary citizen is aware of judges."

Judges run without party affiliation in both the Republican and Democratic primaries. The top four vote-getters in each primary this March will go on to the general election.

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