Courting votes

July 06, 2006

Whether Arthur M. Frank becomes a Circuit Court judge is up to Baltimore County voters, but he has already established a precedent. He's the first political candidate to be chastised for unethical conduct by the Maryland Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee, a nonprofit, bipartisan group that is trying to enforce a voluntary code for would-be and incumbent judges running for office. The incident should reinforce public skepticism over how Maryland selects Circuit Court judges.

Mr. Frank, 50, is one of six candidates running for four seats on the Baltimore County bench. He is not an incumbent judge, but the casual observer would scarcely notice. In his campaign literature, on signs and even on his minivan, the words "Judge" and "Frank" are so prominently displayed that they appear to be his title. Complaints filed with the committee also noted that Mr. Frank was listed as "The Honorable Arthur M. Frank, Esquire" on a school fundraising event and as "Judge Arthur Frank" in a public notice of a blood drive he co-sponsored in April.

We would be shocked and appalled by this misrepresentation had we never seen its like before. For the record, Mr. Frank says he didn't mean to be misleading, says his critics have ties to the county's incumbent judges and wishes the criticisms had been pointed out sooner than within four months of the general election.

The motivation of candidates who attempt this kind of political finesse is obvious. Voters take the most casual of interests in judicial elections (Exhibit A: Candidates at the bottom of the ballot tend to fare poorly compared with those at the top.) People are usually more inclined to trust incumbents who have, after all, passed the judgment of a nominating commission and a gubernatorial appointment process.

There are far worse examples of political duplicity, of course, but the question is, how much of this can be tolerated from judicial candidates? The MJCCC was formed because of growing concern about such behavior (other states have it far worse). Can a candidate who promises tougher sentencing still be considered impartial? Is it appropriate to make campaign promises that amount to an ethical breach?

So once again we must ask, is this the best way to select Circuit Court judges? Nominees for District Court and for Maryland's appeals courts aren't chosen this way. It's a process that has hurt African-American candidates in particular (several incumbents have lost at the polls in recent elections). Yet this fall there are seven jurisdictions with contested judicial elections: Baltimore City and Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard, St. Mary's and Talbot counties. This much is certain: The ethics watchdogs are going to be busy.

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