Michael Amon

Md.’s Appointed Jurists Face a Trial at the Polls

Posted in The Washington Post by michaelamon on December 7, 2006

February 28, 2004 — The Washington Post
Michael Amon, Washington Post Staff Writer

In her first 16 months as a St. Mary’s County Circuit Court judge, Karen H. Abrams, a gubernatorial appointee, has won praise from local lawyers for her temperament and knowledge of the law.

But her professional fate ultimately depends on another of her skills — courting voters.

Like all lawyers appointed to fill circuit court vacancies in Maryland, Abrams, to keep her job, must win a ballot contest for a 15-year term in the first election cycle. But, unlike many jurists in the state, she is locked in a contentious primary race against two formidable challengers: lawyer Bryan T. Dugan and St. Mary’s State’s Attorney Richard D. Fritz, a proven vote-getter who has won two countywide elections.

Fritz has called Abrams “left-wing,” and Dugan has accused her of interpreting the law badly. For Abrams, a political novice who has never worked on a campaign, fighting back has proved difficult as Tuesday’s election looms.

“It’s been a huge learning curve,” said Abrams, an appointee of former governor Parris N. Glendening (D). “It’s difficult to politic and be judicial at the same time.”

On Tuesday, Abrams and jurists from Harford, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Baltimore counties will have their jobs on the line. Because the races are nonpartisan, the candidates’ names will appear on both Republican and Democratic ballots.

According to judges and lawyers, an unspoken covenant allowing sitting jurists to go unopposed has broken down in the last few years. And the trend has only picked up steam as lawyers who felt shut out of judicial appointments by Glendening have scored victories against sitting judges.

Of the 28 contested judicial elections in Maryland since 1986, 16 have involved Glendening appointees since 1996. And those who have lost have been minorities and women.

Alexander Wright Jr. was appointed by Glendening to Baltimore County Circuit Court in 1998 but lost in the 2000 primary. He was appointed again in 2001 but lost a second election in 2002. If he had won, he would have been the first African American in Baltimore County to be elected in a countywide race.

In 1996, Donna Hill Staton, Howard County’s first black female judge, failed to keep her seat in a race with two opponents.

Lawyers “have seen certain judges get defeated,” said Jane Eveleth, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Bar Association, which opposes judicial elections. “It may be inspiration for others to try it. . . . This may be their opportunity to become a judge.”

To be appointed to circuit court, lawyers must submit their names for a vacancy. They are then vetted by a county nominating committee, which looks at qualifications and sends a list of worthy candidates to the governor.

While the system is designed to remove politics from the judiciary, critics say the process is shielded from public view. And politics always plays a major role in selections, say critics, who point out that very few Republicans were appointed to judgeships by Glendening.

“For whatever reason, my name never gets sent to the governor,” said Steven J. Scheinin, a Harford County lawyer who is a Republican. He has unsuccessfully run for judge at least four times and is again challenging the incumbent on Tuesday. “If I want to be a judge, I have no other choice but to run,” Scheinin said.

In St. Mary’s, Dugan, a Democrat, applied for the vacant judgeship but was passed over in October 2002 for Abrams, also a Democrat and now the county’s first female judge. Fritz, a Republican, did not apply.

“It would have been a waste of time,” Fritz said. “It would do me no good, when I absolutely, unequivocally know Parris Glendening would not have appointed me.”

During the campaign, the former governor has been a focus of attention. Fritz, a veteran prosecutor who bills himself as a law-and-order candidate, attacks Glendening at every turn and, without naming Abrams, calls his judicial appointees “left-wing liberals” who are soft on crime.

“He keeps trying to tarnish me with Governor Glendening,” Abrams said. “I hope that nobody is going to be fooled by that.”

Abrams has campaigned relentlessly, hitting up voters at pancake breakfasts, volunteer fire department halls and supermarket parking lots.

She has been endorsed by Frances Eagan, a former Republican county commissioner, and her campaign chairwoman is Dana McGarity, a well-known Southern Maryland GOP activist.

Abrams has raised more than $37,000 for the campaign. Fritz and Dugan have raised $50,000 combined.

“Judicial campaigns are starting to look more and more like trademark political campaigns,” said Jesse Rutledge of Justice at Stake, a judiciary watchdog group in the District. “You see a lot of money going into these races and a sense of partisan competition that wasn’t there before.”

Changing how Maryland elects judges would require amending the state constitution, and efforts to do so have stalled in the General Assembly. Rutledge said Maryland’s system has not caused as much controversy as the systems in Texas and Alabama, where judges are elected every four years.

Judicial challengers say elections open the judiciary to public scrutiny.

Annapolis lawyer Thomas J. McCarthy Sr., one of four candidates challenging three sitting Anne Arundel judges, said jurists should have to pass some “litmus test” other than a governor’s approval.

“This is an opportunity for the voters of Anne Arundel County,” he said. “Now they have a choice.”


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