Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin

Editor: W. Patrick Tandy

February, 2004

 

MSBA Supports Sitting Judges
~Contested Court Elections Scheduled in Five Counties~

By Janet Stidman Eveleth

When Marylanders go to the polls to participate in the state’s March 2 primary election, they will select candidates for the President of the United States, the U.S. Senate, Congress, and, in seven Maryland judicial circuits, circuit court judges. In the 2004 Maryland primary election, sitting judges in five county circuit courts face challengers and thus contested elections: Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County, Frederick County, Harford County and St. Mary’s County. The Maryland State Bar Association (MSBA) supports the sitting judges seeking to retain their seats on Maryland’s circuit courts.

On December 16, 2003, MSBA’s Board of Governors approved a resolution endorsing the incumbent Circuit Court Judges in Maryland. These sitting judges have been found to be qualified by a Judicial Nominating Commission and were selected by the Governor of Maryland. These esteemed members of the bench have earned the confidence, respect and support of the Bar and thus should run on their records in retention elections, not in contested elections.

For decades, MSBA has opposed contested judicial elections and endorsed the retention and merit selection of sitting judges for circuit courts of Maryland. The selection of judges must be dedicated to placing and retaining persons of the highest quality of character, integrity, judicial temperament and learning on Maryland’s bench. To achieve this goal, state judges need to be appointed on the basis of merit. Maryland’s current sitting judges have been evaluated, selected and appointed because of their judicial characteristics, quality and merit.

In Maryland, circuit court judges are the only members of the bench who must stand for contested elections. The Governor initially appoints all judges after the candidate has undergone an extensive screening and evaluation process by independent judicial nominating commissions, as set forth by Executive Orders since 1976. District court judges serve for 10 years then may be reappointed by the Governor with Senate consent, while appellate judges run in retention elections.

But circuit court judges must run in the general election immediately following their gubernatorial appointment and then must stand for re-election every 15 years to retain their seats. Sometimes, sitting judges face challengers in these elections, as will be the case on March 2 in the five aforementioned counties. In recent years, contested elections for circuit court seats in Maryland have been on the rise and some contests have become acrimonious. In some cases, it is suspected that sitting judges have lost their seats because they were at the wrong end of an alphabetized listing on the ballot.

Technically, any Maryland attorney over the age of 30 who is admitted to the Maryland Bar, has resided in the state for five years and has lived in the specific circuit for six months can challenge a sitting judge in a contested election. Frequently, these contenders have not been through the extensive judicial screening process sitting judges must undergo prior to appointment. In addition, challengers may speak freely, make election promises and offer rhetoric that may be inflammatory or misleading. Sitting judges are bound by and must honor the Judicial Canon of Ethics.

Opposition of Contested Elections

Historically, MSBA has opposed the contested election of Maryland’s circuit court judges on ethical, political, campaign, judicial independence and monetary grounds.  MSBA would like to see politics removed from Maryland’s judicial selection process. It fears these elections inadvertently transform judges into politicians and push them into the fray of partisan politics. This contradicts judicial ethics, threatens the independence and impartiality of Maryland’s Judiciary and erodes the public’s trust and confidence in our legal system.

Contested elections subject sitting judges to partisan politics and force them to campaign and raise funds to retain their seat on the bench. Considerable expense accompanies contested elections, as sitting judges must raise money, advertise, make public appearances and actively campaign for votes. Campaigning costs sitting judges time which, given heavy court dockets, is at a premium. It is also costs money and can compromise their impartiality.

Additionally, contested elections pose ethical dilemmas for sitting judges. For one thing, Judicial Canons prohibit sitting judges from directly soliciting campaign funds, although their non-judicial opponents do not operate under these restrictions. In addition, attorneys who appear before judges in their courtrooms may contribute to the campaign, creating the appearance and casting shadows of impropriety. Overall, contested elections present the potential for conflicts of interest.

Many qualified attorneys are discouraged from seeking a judicial seat because of contested elections, narrowing the pool of judicial candidates. The expense associated with campaigning, the time investment and the possibility of losing one’s seat to a contender are all major deterrents.

Quite often, the public does not know who the sitting judges are and votes for circuit court judges on the basis of alphabetical order and party affiliation rather than judicial qualifications. Voting polls indicate that party labels and ballot positions are often more significant than judicial qualifications, an unfortunate basis on which to select circuit court judges.

Merit Selection of Judges

Thus, MSBA supports the merit selection of judges. In last year’s Maryland General Assembly, MSBA favored legislation supporting a retention election process for circuit court judges, who after gubernatorial appointment and Senate confirmation would serve 10-year terms before standing for retention election to keep their seats on the bench. MSBA believes this process will promote judicial accountability and ensure the most qualified jurists serve on Maryland’s bench.

This selection process places the most qualified judges on Maryland’s bench. Sitting judges have successfully completed a rigorous interview, evaluation and selection process. Their skills, judicial temperament and qualifications have been demonstrated to the Maryland Judicial Nominating Commission. Many have also been evaluated by local and state bar associations. Often, challengers have not been through this process; hence, voters have less chance of assessing their judicial traits.

Marylanders are indeed fortunate to have judges with the highest quality of character, integrity, judicial temperament and learning on Maryland’s Circuit Courts. These sitting judges are well respected and of the highest caliber; they have earned the confidence, respect and support of the public and the Bar. To preserve Maryland’s tradition of judicial excellence, MSBA strongly supports the sitting circuit court judges.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: February, 2004

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