Rules of conduct for judges set

Voluntary standards aim to avoid erosion of public trust during campaigns


Prominent members of Maryland's legal community, worried that hotly contested elections for judges could erode public confidence in the judiciary, announced a set of voluntary conduct standards yesterday that they hope will preserve the dignity of the office.

At the behest of Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of the Maryland Court of Appeals, former U.S. Attorney George Beall and Stephen H. Sachs, a former U.S. attorney and state attorney general, led a committee of attorneys, academics and former politicians to create the standards and ascertain when they have been violated.

They said they will ask judicial candidates to sign pledges to uphold the standards and will investigate claims that they have been violated.

Members of the committee said Maryland's judicial elections for Circuit Court seats have been relatively calm. But in other states - particularly Texas - judicial candidates have engaged in unseemly behavior to discredit their opponents, mislead the public about their qualifications and convince voters of the way they would decide certain kinds of cases before they hear them, the committee members said.

"The committee has a unanimous view that judicial elections are not like, and should not become like, elections for legislative and executive office," Sachs said. "The pledges and promises ... that are necessary for necessary for other elective office, and the sometimes bare-knuckled tactics that are necessary for other types of elections, have no place in judicial elections."

Sachs, Beall and others said they seek to protect the dignity and impartiality of the judiciary. Judges, they said, are called upon to hold themselves above disputes and render decisions without bias or prejudice, so they should hold themselves to higher standards of campaigning than do other candidates for office.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states may not prohibit judicial candidates from making campaign pledges or inflammatory remarks, said Sherrilyn A. Ifill, a University of Maryland Law School professor who helped organize the committee. But Ifill said the committee hopes voters will respond to candidates who voluntarily uphold higher standards. She said the committee will publicize the names of candidates who sign the pledge and of those who violate it.

Several other states have taken similar approaches, she said.

The rules call for judicial candidates to avoid making statements that could compromise their impartiality in a case and to truthfully represent their qualifications and experience, and those of their opponents.

The standards also seek to ensure that fundraising does not "undercut the dignity or impartiality of judicial office."

A handbook developed by the committee lists examples of acceptable and unacceptable conduct. For example, a candidate who is not an incumbent judge would not be allowed to distribute bumper stickers or yard signs that say, "ELECT as JUDGE JOHN SMITH," with "as" too small to be read by passing motorists.

A challenger could distribute campaign materials saying that a judge is too lenient on drunken drivers if court records are used to back up the claim. But if the challenger's brochures claimed that being sent to the judge's courtroom is "like being handed a `Get Out of Jail Free' card," that would violate the prohibition on using language that "demeans public respect for the dignity of judicial office."

A judge could criticize a challenger with little experience as a lawyer for being unready to sit on the bench but could not distribute brochures claiming that a longtime public defender should not be elected because he has represented convicted felons. Such a campaign tactic "brings into disrepute the representation of criminal defendants, an essential function of the criminal justice system," the rules say.

Bell said the committee has found a way to "take some of the contention out of these elections so the public trust in what comes out of these elections will be enhanced and increased."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s chief counsel, Jervis S. Finney, issued a statement yesterday pledging the governor's support for the initiative.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who has won legislative, executive and judicial elections over the past 20 years, said candidates for all offices would do well to abide by the kinds of decency standards the committee is suggesting.

But judicial elections are different, he said, in that making the kind of campaign pledges a candidate for another office would can be inappropriate. Moderators of debates, members of the news media and voters often demand that judicial candidates take stands on issues that they might later decide on from the bench, Smith said.

"Standards where these issues would be avoided by candidates are certainly appropriate," Smith said. "One thing this would give would be an additional explanation to questioners about why you can't get into it."

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