Few challengers, little recognition for sitting judges

If pattern persists, many voters will skip judicial races Tuesday

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

He will appear on every Maryland ballot next week. But he is spending no money to campaign, the only baby he has kissed is his granddaughter, and in the thick of the campaign season, he took a weeklong vacation in the Caribbean with his family.

But Joseph F. Murphy Jr., chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals, has little to worry about. When voters see his name on the ballot next week, it will be accompanied by boxes for "yes" or "no" - but no opponent.

Such is the nature of judicial elections in Maryland, where, if history is a guide, many voters Tuesday will skip the section pertaining to the third branch of state government.

Voters in only two counties in the state will be able to choose among competing candidates for judge. Still, some voters tend to check the first names on the ballot, leaving the rest alphabetically challenged.

Other voters look for any identifier, such as an ethnic name or a gender. There aren't even any party labels to offer guidance: judicial elections are nonpartisan.

"Most people do not know who the candidates are. That is an unfortunate fact of life," said Jesse Rutledge, spokesman for Justice at Stake, a Washington-based organization that promotes judicial independence. Voters, he said, "are not very well informed, and that is a shame."

This year, there will be 32 candidates for judicial positions on ballots across Maryland. All but four are sitting judges.

In 11 of the 13 jurisdictions with Circuit Court judges on the ballot, the races are uncontested.

In Montgomery County, four judges are seeking full terms. But a Libertarian Party candidate hopes to unseat one of them. The Anne Arundel County race pits three judges running on a combined ticket against three challengers, one from the Libertarian Party.

Some of the other counties held contested primaries - all won by sitting judges.

In Harford County, a sitting judge bested a primary challenger.

In Baltimore County, where two lawyers mounted primary races, the four judges turned to a radio jingle to gain name recognition and win the primary.

In Baltimore, five judges ran unopposed in the primary and general elections.

The races are not always so certain, however. In recent years, voters in two counties have kicked judicial appointees off the bench.

One was voted off the Baltimore County bench in 2000, only to be reappointed by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Voters bounced the judge again this year. The other was voted off Howard County's bench in 1996. Both judges were black, leading to accusations of racism.

Judges at all levels in Maryland must first be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The governor chooses from a list of applicants screened by a judicial nominating panel made up of gubernatorial and bar association appointees.

Judges at the lowest rung, District Court, are named to 10-year terms. They do not face voters and can be reappointed.

To remain on the bench, Circuit Court judges seek 15-year terms in the election after appointment. The law provides for contested elections, and increasingly, they occur.

Judges of the top two courts - the Court of Appeals and the Court of Special Appeals - are appointed and, on the next ballot after appointment, appear unopposed for a 10-year term. If the voters' answer is "no" to keeping them in office, the governor appoints someone else.

Putting judges on the ballot serves as a check on the governor's power, Murphy said.

"If the governor puts on somebody who is just unacceptable to the community, it gives the community a right to say, `No, we are not giving this person a 15-year term,'" he said.

But some lawyers say privately that they would be reluctant to challenge an appointee short of a scandal, in part because of the role lawyers play in judicial selection and because the state bar association favors retaining judges.

Many voters know little, if anything, about candidates for judgeships. Leeann Keyser of Elkridge has strong feelings about the presidential race, but asked if she knew there was a judge on her ballot, she replied, "Is there?"

Only a few states, Maryland not among them, issue voter guides that include judges, Rutledge said, creating a "burden" on residents to pick through Web sites, campaign literature and the rare candidate forums.

For information on Maryland's judges, a voter can go to a state court Web site. But it carries only published appellate opinions - a fraction of the appellate rulings - and goes back only to 1995.

A spring poll by the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College indicated that only 43 percent of respondents felt they knew enough about Anne Arundel's judicial candidates to make an informed decision.

Early this month, almost half the people polled for an Anne Arundel County judicial candidate's campaign were undecided - an indication, some experts say, of voter unfamiliarity with the names.

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