Judicial elections

Maryland Votes 2006

September 08, 2006

The Maryland Constitution calls for state trial court judges to stand for election. It also requires that they be practicing lawyers who are "most distinguished for integrity, wisdom and sound legal knowledge." But one doesn't necessarily ensure the other - and that is the basic problem with the current system.

Most trial judges in Maryland were first appointed to the bench, which is provided for in the constitution. Candidates and their credentials are reviewed and vetted by an impartial nominating commission, which recommends a list of potential appointees to the governor. Judges then must run in the general election that occurs at least one year after their appointment. But a handful of judges have bypassed that process and won their seats through direct election without ever being vetted by a nonpartisan panel of their peers.

In the past, some lawyers ran for judge to diversify the bench. Others objected to a system they claimed favored insiders. When Dundalk lawyer Patrick Cavanaugh ousted a sitting Circuit Court judge in the 2002 election, he complained that the process had become too political, favoring diversity over ability. Others argued that the system ignored Republicans.

In this election, voters are hearing similar complaints from challengers who are vying for seats held by 12 judges in the city and Howard, Harford, Baltimore and Carroll counties. Unlike any other state election, judicial candidates appear in alphabetical order on both the Democratic and Republican ballots without any indication of party affiliation or incumbency. But because these races rarely garner the attention or media coverage of a contested Senate or governor's race, ballot position can help or hinder a candidate's chances. The top winners in both primaries move on to the November general election.

To complicate matters more this year, a judicial candidate in Howard County has been selected by the Libertarian Party to run as its candidate for judge, which means he will automatically appear on the November ballot.

Our opposition to the judicial election system has long been noted because it puts incumbent judges in the untenable position of having to campaign, raise money and speak out on issues when their job requires them to be impartial. It means voters may hear only what challengers want to tell them, not what they need to know to assess a potential judge's character and temperament.

Given that sitting judges have been vetted, assessed and found qualified by a nonpartisan panel, voters would need an extraordinary reason to oust one in favor of a challenger who has not undergone such a process. Absent any such extraordinary reasons, The Sun endorses the sitting judges in Baltimore, Gale Elizabeth Rasin, John C. Themelis and Barry G. Williams; in Baltimore County, Robert E. Cahill, Judith C. Ensor, Timothy J. Martin and Mickey Norman; in Carroll County, J. Barry Hughes and Thomas F. Stansfield; in Harford County, Stephen M. Waldron; and in Howard County, Louis A. Becker and Richard S. Bernhardt.

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