Panel pushes judge rules

One candidate resists standards on fundraising

July 12, 2006|By LAURA CADIZ | LAURA CADIZ,SUN REPORTER

Judicial elections ought to be conducted differently from all the "rough and tumble of politics," says Stephen H. Sachs, co-chair of the newly formed Maryland Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee.

In an attempt to assure that the judicial races are civilized, the bi-partisan committee is asking judicial candidates to endorse a set of standards for impartiality, truthfulness and dignity.

Two Howard County candidates -- sitting Circuit Judges Louis A. Becker and Richard S. Bernhardt -- have agreed to the standards. But a third candidate, attorney David Titman, has refused because a section regarding campaign contributions is too "vague," he said.

The three candidates are vying for two positions. They will be on the Democratic and Republican primary ballots in September, and the top two vote-getters in each primary advance to the general election in November.

The standard requires candidates to abide by state election laws regarding fundraising as well as to "take all reasonable steps to insure that campaign fundraising does not undercut the dignity or impartially of judicial office."

Titman, who is not accepting campaign contributions from attorneys, said he would have liked the committee to restrict contributions from Maryland attorneys.

"I generally agree that campaigns for judicial offices should be conducted in a positive manner," Titman said. "One of my campaign themes is doing what's right, which involves not accepting contributions from attorneys who will then likely appear before me."

In a letter to the committee, Titman wrote: "The last thing that should be on a litigant's mind when they are in court is, `Did my lawyer give a campaign contribution to the judge?' or `Is the judge siding with the other side because my lawyer didn't give a contribution?' "

Sachs said the committee has received about 20 responses from judges signing on to the standards, and Titman is the only candidate so far to decline to do so.

In a letter to Titman, Sachs said that the committee has considered his views about campaign fundraising and noted that a Maryland Canon allows judicial candidates to "engage in partisan political activity allowed by law."

Becker and Bernhardt, who are running as a slate and were appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last summer, have not barred contributions from attorneys.

"What's the difference between someone coming up and saying, `I donated [money] to your campaign' and someone saying, `Hey, I voted for you'?" Becker said.

Bernhardt said he does not understand why lawyers shouldn't be able to show their support for judicial candidates, and if lawyers are supportive of Becker and himself then, "I think that's something that speaks for itself."

"I think attorneys are in a unique position to view ... what qualities they want out of a judge, what level of experience they want out of a judge," Bernhardt said. "When they make donations, or when they vote for you, when they demonstrate support in any way ... I think what they're doing is thinking to themselves, `I want a judge who has certain qualifications so I know my clients will be properly treated in court."

To avoid any perceived conflict, Becker and Bernhardt say that their campaign committee collects the money and, "We told them we don't what to know who's donated what. They keep those records. We don't want them, we'll never want them," Bernhardt said.

However, Titman believes that campaign contributions are critical to the perception of impartiality.

"The mere fact that my opponents are now in position of authority, being sitting judges, for them to attract campaign contributions by soliciting money from people who appear before them, I find that to be totally unacceptable," Titman said.

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