Waiting for a judge

November 03, 2011

In this country, one way for chief executives to flex their political muscles beyond their time in office is through the appointment of judges.

Generally, John Adams, second president of the United States, is regarded as a founding father of heroic proportions, but the story of his "midnight judges" is one of the earliest tales of political reaching taught in history class. For those who don't recall, the story has it as he was preparing to leave office, President Adams' hand grew sore from all the paperwork on the last-minute federal judges he appointed on his last evening in office.

There are plenty of examples in history books of our founders behaving just like their modern replacements — and in many instances worse — which is to say they behaved like the representatives of our society that they were.

The midnight judge case comes to mind these days, however, because of what appears to have become a rather cavalier attitude on the part of Maryland's governors when it comes to making judicial appointments in Harford County. This goes back beyond the current occupant of the governor's mansion, but Martin O'Malley indeed has shown himself to be slow in appointing a replacement for Thomas E. Marshall, who retired from the Harford County Circuit Court bench earlier this year.

O'Malley has had the names of five recommended candidates on his desk for a month, but hasn't made an appointment. Were it a matter of his taking time to ensure the best candidate is chosen for an appointment that could well end up being 15 years, the time that has elapsed would be forgivable. Problem with that excuse is Judge Marshall made it clear long before he left office as to when he would be retiring.

The process of picking a replacement judge is a complex one, and involves making sure the local judicial nominating committee has enough members, then making sure that committee gets a chance to interview those who apply for the judgeship, then getting the committee's recommendations to the governor. Still, there was plenty of warning the need for a replacement was at hand.

By waiting, the governor leaves open one of five full-time judge offices, which translates to 20 percent of the local circuit court's capacity to hear cases. This is a bit of a simplification of the situation, but the long and short of it is that when governors take their time in appointing judges, an injustice is done to the citizenry.

Of course there are often issues of political timing to consider when making appointments, and likely as not such considerations are at play in this case. It would be nice if that weren't the case, but given our national tradition of playing politics with judicial appointments, there's every reason to believe no appointment will be made to the Harford County bench until it's clear the appointment has the maximum impact for the governor.

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