Circuit judges face challenge from hopefuls

5 lawyers face off against 3 named to bench in 2002

3 to 6 will go to Nov. election

Unseating could undo diversification of court

Election 2004

February 29, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

It has been eight years since a sitting judge was challenged in an Anne Arundel County election, and a quarter-century since voters ousted one from the bench.

But this year, encouraged by challengers' recent wins elsewhere, five lawyers see an opportunity to dismantle the only Circuit Court bench in Maryland appointed entirely by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, and they are seeking to defeat the three incumbent judges in the race.

"Oh, yeah, I think it's a distinct possibility somebody could get knocked off this year," said Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College.

That prospect has the potential to undo some of Glendening's diversification of the bench. The court's only African-American judge and one of three female judges are on the ballot. Incumbents David S. Bruce, Michele D. Jaklitsch and Rodney C. Warren were appointed in 2002 and, like judges elsewhere, have low name recognition.

Voters may be more familiar with the challengers for several reasons. Two ran unsuccessfully for public office. Some have lived and worked locally for decades. And one - Paul G. Goetzke - held the job of Annapolis city attorney and received attention when a diving accident paralyzed him from the chest down.

Combined, the eight candidates have raised more than $200,000, making this the most expensive judicial contest the county has seen.

A Circuit Court judge is appointed to the $119,600-a-year job. To keep their posts for a 15-year term, judges must be elected at the first election after their appointment - and increasingly, those elections are contested. Critics contend that both the appointment and election processes are fraught with politics.

The eight candidates appear alphabetically on both the Democratic and Republican primary ballots, with neither party nor incumbency noted. The top three vote-getters on each ballot will move on to the general election. The process means that Tuesday's contest will have three to six survivors, depending on whether candidates win on one or both party ballots.

In Anne Arundel, a conservative county where 46 percent of the voters affiliated with a party are Republican and where anti-Glendening sentiment is high in some quarters, the challengers see this election as a great opportunity to get on the bench.

It once was rare for an incumbent judge to face a serious challenge, much less to lose. But in recent elections in two other mostly white counties, two of Glendening's African-American Circuit Court appointees were voted out.

In a bitter and expensive 1996 race in Howard County, appointee Donna Hill Staton lost. In 2000 and again in 2002, two-time appointee Alexander Wright Jr. lost races to retain his Baltimore County judgeship and to become the first African-American elected to a countywide post. Both were on the bottom of the ballot alphabetically.

(Clayton Greene Jr. was the first black appointee to the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court and was then elected. He is now on the Court of Appeals, opening the seat now held by one of the three incumbents in this year's race.)

Supporters of the sitting Arundel circuit judges on Tuesday's ballot say voters should focus on the merits of the incumbents, not on the former governor or political affiliation in what is a nonpartisan job.

The incumbents say they have been doing the job, handling mostly family and civil cases, working to be fair and impartial.

In recent forums, Arundel's sitting judges talked about the vetting they went through by the Judicial Nominating Commission, which reviews candidates who seek appointment before recommending them to the governor.

The challengers say the appointment process is flawed, overtly clubby and political. Some have promised to be tougher on criminals and have criticized the bench as lenient, without pointing to specific rulings.

But factors other than judicial philosophy and qualification - such as name recognition - could be important in this race, political observers say.

"These are low-visibility positions," Nataf said, pointing out that few voters know the sitting judges from the challengers.

With that in mind and with voter turnout crucial, the candidates are seeking every means to stand out from the crowd.

Challenger Joseph F. Bruce is advising voters to think "Deuce for Bruce" - a reference to his No. 2 position on the ballot and an effort to distinguish himself from the incumbent Bruce.

The sitting judges are asking people to vote for the first and last names on the ballot, and for the only woman.

Scott A. Conwell put out literature implying that there was a Republican slate - much to the surprise of the other two Republicans, Goetzke and Paul F. Harris Jr.

Two of the candidates have campaign experience that the sitting judges don't have. Conwell was an unsuccessful GOP candidate for Congress, and Thomas McCarthy Sr. lost a state delegate race.

The need to campaign can be a bit of a shock for someone more accustomed to the staid ways of the courtroom.

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