Judicial elections bill stalled in committees

Legislative Black Caucus opposes Gansler proposal

March 30, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz | julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

A group of black lawmakers appears to have blocked Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's effort to end voters' ability to choose Circuit Court judges.

Gansler's proposal, which aimed to replace contested elections with retention elections every 10 years, is languishing in key committees in the House of Delegates and the Senate. The chairmen of both said Monday that the Legislative Black Caucus' strong opposition has doomed Gansler's bill.

"That spelled its demise," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, who does not plan to forward the legislation to the full Senate.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's and Calvert County Democrat who leads the House Judiciary Committee, said he would not bring the proposal up for a vote because "there's just not support for it."

If lawmakers do change course and approve the plan in the final two weeks of the legislative session, it would be put before voters this fall because it involves a change to the Maryland Constitution.

Currently, the governor appoints Circuit Court judges, who preside over jury trials. To win their full 15-year terms, their names must appear on the ballot for the next general election. Attorneys practicing for more than five years can also run in those elections.

Gansler urged lawmakers to end contested elections out of concern that corporations could essentially pick judges by pumping large sums of money into their campaign coffers.

Lawmakers paid special attention to the issue this year because of the backing of the attorney general and a pair of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including a case where the chief executive officer of a company contributed $3 million to support a sympathetic candidate's run for the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.

Del. Curt S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat and member of the black caucus, said defense attorney William H. "Billy" Murphy, who once ran successfully as a Baltimore Circuit Court judge, persuaded many lawmakers to oppose Gansler's plan. Murphy told the legislative committees that it is essential for voters to have a say in who sits in judgment of the community.

The caucus has supported the election of judges for more 30 years, Anderson said, and Murphy "erased any doubts" about maintaining its position.

But some black lawmakers remain convinced that a fully appointed bench is a better route. Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, said the state "needs diversity on the bench," something that the appointment system ensures in mostly white areas.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gansler, said that if the effort fails this year, "we'll evaluate what steps we're going to take next year."

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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