Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : October 2006

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MSBA Endorses Sitting Judges

~Contested elections remain in Howard and Talbot Counties~

When Maryland citizens go to the polls on November 7 to select the Governor, Comptroller, Attorney General and numerous other candidates running in the general election, they will also be voting for circuit court judges across the state. In two counties, they will be considering both incumbent judges and challengers. While contested elections were resolved in six counties during the primary election, with the sitting judges prevailing, two contests will be decided in the general election.

In Talbot County, Judge Sidney Campen will face challenger Jo Ann Asparagus in the general election. While Campen prevailed in the Republican primary election ballot, Asparagus succeeded in the Democratic ballot, so they will both run in the general election. In Howard County, sitting judges Louis Becker and Richard Bernhardt were both victorious, defeating challenger David Titman in the primary, but the challenger has successfully petitioned to be included on the general election ballot as a Libertarian candidate, so the two sitting judges will again face the challenger in the general election.

"The Maryland State Bar Association's Board of Governors, on behalf of our 22,100 members, has unanimously voted to endorse the sitting judges in Howard and Talbot Counties," states Edward J. Gilliss, MSBA President. "Our Board of Governors is a geographically-diverse group of 42 lawyers. It is indeed a strong statement of support for Judges Becker, Bernhardt and Campen that the MSBA's governing body has unanimously voiced our endorsement of these respected judges."

MSBA supports these esteemed members of the bench, who have earned the confidence, respect and support of the Bar. All sitting judges are carefully screened and qualified by a Judicial Nominating Commission, then selected and appointed by the Governor of Maryland. They reflect high quality in character, integrity and judicial temperament.

Any attorney age 30 or over 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, offer rhetoric that may be inflammatory or misleading and even attack the records of sitting judges.

Although the Supreme Court of the United States opened the gateway for judicial candidates' free speech rights in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, 536 U.S. 765 in 2002, sitting judges are still bound by the Judicial Canon of Ethics. White struck down restrictions on candidate speech that prevented judicial candidates from announcing their views on legal and political issues on First Amendment grounds.

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.

However, 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. Increasingly, sitting judges in Maryland face challengers in these elections. In recent years, contested elections for circuit court seats in Maryland have been on the rise and some contests have become acrimonious, which hurts the Judiciary's image.

The public often is confounded by judicial contested elections. Most citizens do not know who the sitting judges are and vote for circuit court judges on the basis of alphabetical order and party affiliation rather than judicial qualifications. It is believed some sitting judges have even lost their seats because they were at the wrong end of an alphabetized listing on the ballot. 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.

MSBA Opposes Judicial Contested Elections

Traditionally, MSBA has opposed the contested election of Maryland's circuit court judges on ethical, political, campaign, judicial independence and monetary grounds. 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 also costs money and can compromise their impartiality.

Contested elections also 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 of and casting shadows of impropriety. Overall, contested elections present the potential for conflicts of interest.

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.

Thus, the Association supports the merit selection of judges as it promotes judicial accountability and ensures 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 and frequently MSBA's judicial committee as well as those from local and specialty bar associations.

The state of Maryland is 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: October 2006