For 3 judges on city ballot, primary isn't easy as A-B-C

September 09, 2006|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

Not since grade-school seating charts have last names been so important.

The three sitting Baltimore Circuit Court judges running in Tuesday's primary are worried that they'll lose their places on the bench because voters might simply check off the first three of the six names on the ballot.

Their late-alphabet names -- Rasin, Themelis and Williams -- have caused them such concern that campaign literature urges people to "vote from the bottom up."

This is the first contested city judicial election in eight years, and a sitting judge has not lost to a newcomer in 24 years.

But the three challengers for seats on the bench -- Brown, Del Pizzo and Jones -- will be listed first on the ballot.

Some say this might give them a significant advantage. Conventional wisdom is that in these lesser-known races, where none of the candidates has much name recognition, voters might be more likely to shrug their shoulders and choose the first few names on the ballot.

Elections are one of two paths to the Circuit Court bench in Maryland. More commonly, the Judicial Nominating Commission forwards names to the governor, who appoints judges as vacancies appear.

All sitting judges, whether popularly elected or nominated, must face re-election every 15 years.

Strange focus

Right about now, Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams, who was appointed nine months ago and is to be the last name on the ballot, said he would prefer to be, say, Barry Billiams.

"It's strange to have to focus on our names rather than our records," Williams said. "Any other time I've competed, it has been based on merit, and I've done quite well."

Circuit Judge John C. Themelis, on the bench for 22 years, believes some of his challengers are running simply because they know their early-alphabet last names give them an edge.

"Historically, 5 to 15 percent of people have no idea who they're voting for and vote from the top down," he said. "We're trying to correct that."

But local attorney Nicholas J. Del Pizzo, listed second on the ballot, said the sitting judges just seem to have a case of pre-election nerves.

He said he's running for one reason: "It's time for some new blood in the Circuit Court."

Blame the name

A review of judicial races in the past three primary and general elections shows that the conventional wisdom might be playing out.

Three times each in 2004, 2002 and 2000, candidates at the bottom -- including three sitting judges -- have lost out.

Alexander Wright Jr. has the dubious distinction of being the only person appointed to the bench, elected out in 2000, appointed a second time and elected out again in 2002.

In part, he blames his name, which appeared last on both ballots. "In a race where it's hard to educate the public, being at the bottom is going to hurt your chances of winning," he said.

In Anne Arundel County, Circuit Judge Rodney C. Warren, also last on the ballot, was voted out in 2004.

But so, too, was Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge David S. Bruce, the second name on the list of six.

Wright said Maryland's method of selecting Circuit Court judges makes it harder to mobilize the public.

Some years in some districts, no judges are up for re-election. And in years when they are, often there are no competitors.

Wright said voters don't know when to pay attention, so they end up tuning out all the time.

No. 1 on the city Circuit Court candidate's list this year is Emanuel Brown, who has been a judge on the lower Baltimore District Court judge since 1998.

Brown didn't want to talk about the alphabet.

"I am confident that citizens look at the information and make the best choices," he said.

It might not just be Brown's name that the sitting judges fear: He has twice been selected by the Judicial Nominating Commission for a Circuit Court bench slot and filled in twice.

The third challenger, Rodney M. Jones, was reprimanded in August 2005 by the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission for representing a client in a bankruptcy matter before he was admitted to the federal bar.

Jones could not be reached for comment.

In same boat

The sitting judges acknowledged one plus: Even though they'll be listed four, five and six on the ballot, at least they're all in the same late-alphabet boat.

"We're blessed to be running together," Themelis said, "and we're blessed that no one is running between us."

Wright said he wished he had had the luxury of his slate being all at the bottom.

Instead, the sitting judges running with him were interspersed with newcomers.

"If `Williams' were `Aardvark,' their strategy wouldn't work," he noted.

The "bottom up" slogan, said Circuit Judge Gale E. Rasin, appointed to the bench in September 2004, is to help voters break out of their potential predisposition to vote "one, two, three."

"The first shall be the last and the last shall be the first," said Rasin. "That's what we're hoping."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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