Robed and Ready: Sitting judges get elected the easy way

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 26, 2002

Given the rough-and-tumble nature of job security in elected office, incumbent politicians spend much time and energy crafting strategies for winning elections. Here’s a nearly foolproof scenario: Run on a well-financed slate of incumbents filing in both parties’ primaries, all but guaranteeing slots on the general-election ballot should a challenger emerge. That’s what Baltimore’s sitting Circuit Court judges do, and it’s worked for a generation now. Voters haven’t sent a new judge to the bench since 1982, when they chose Kenneth Lavon Johnson, now retired.

This time, barring an unforeseen challenge mounted before the July 1 filing deadline, five of the court’s 30 judges are running together in an uncontested race. Four of the candidates–Shirley Watts, John Glynn, Lynn Stewart, and John Miller–were appointed to the Circuit Court by the Gov. Parris Glendening within the last 16 months. The fifth, Clifton Gordy, has held his seat since 1985. Judges serve 15-year terms after running in the first election after their initial appointments.

As of last November’s campaign-finance report (the latest available), the Baltimore City Sitting Judges Committee had spent about $60,000 of roughly $105,000 it has raised for this election. The judges themselves aren’t involved in the committee’s activities, says campaign chairperson H. Mark Stichel, a private attorney. But the committee engages in the standard electoral fare, with a couple of twists: Almost all of its money comes from lawyers who appear before the bench, and the judges themselves don’t usually hit the campaign trail.

It’s a “difficult issue,” Stichel acknowledges of the money ties between the bar and the bench, but he maintains that contributing to the committee rather than directly to a particular judge “creates a buffer” that lessens the obvious conflict. Better yet, says James Browning, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, would be some form of public financing for judicial elections.

The current system “impugns the independence of the court and gives the appearance that a verdict can be bought,” Browning says. Public financing would relieve the judges committee from having to raise funds from lawyers, he says, and “would go a long way toward shoring up public confidence” in the way money enters judges races. The change would have to be approved by the state legislature, and there are currently no such proposals pending, Browning says.

The judicial code of conduct limits what judges can say in public, so stumping for office is a dull affair. “It’s really hard to say anything that’s meaningful,” Stichel says. “There’s not much a judge can promise” to do if elected. The judges, he adds, “are not used to campaigning” and are “not comfortable doing it.”

Stichel–noting that he is speaking strictly for himself–says he believes judges shouldn’t be directly elected at all. For example, judges could be appointed to lifetime terms, subject to legislative approval; come up for gubernatorial reappointment at the end of set terms; or subjected to retention elections, in which voters would choose only whether a sitting judge should stay on the bench. But given the current system, the judges have to have someone–in this case, Stichel and committee treasurer Frederick Koontz–to “do the fund-raising and help the judges get over the process of having to run for election,” Stichel says.

Most lawyers and law firms listed in the committee’s campaign-finance report donated from $100 to $500, with a few giving $1,000. “It’s pretty much just lawyers giving,” Stichel says, with the rest coming from people with “pre-existing relationships” with a judge–“personal friends and relatives.” The two biggest contributors to this year’s campaign are Finn Casperson, a New Jersey corporate executive with strong ties to Johns Hopkins University, who gave $4,000, and La-Van Hawkins, a politically active fast-food magnate with significant interests in urban areas, including Baltimore ($3,000).

On the spending side, the committee holds fund-raisers, buys campaign advertising, and sprinkles a selection of politicians and pet causes with contributions. It’s your standard Baltimore campaign effort, right down to using the proper printer: Bromwell Press, a company owned by retiring Baltimore County state Sen. Thomas Bromwell’s cousin.

Perhaps the most unconventional aspect of the judges’ approach to elections, though, is the practice of cross-filing–running in both parties’ primaries. “The theory is that the judges are not supposed to be partisan,” Stichel explains, so they participate in both elections rather than choose one party or the other. There also is a practical element to the strategy, he says: “It’s an insurance policy to get all of the sitting judges to the general election.” If they lose in one party’s primary, they can still win the other’s and make the November ballot.

While the sitting judges usually ease quietly to re-election, an element of public critique occasionally creeps into the process. In 1998, city prosecutor Page Croyder entered the race at the last minute and lambasted the judges’ slate, saying not all of the nine jurists running together deserved another term on the bench. Croyder lost, extending a now-20-year drought for challengers seeking to oust Baltimore judges at the polls. But Stichel says that historically the periodic challenges have helped create a more racially diverse judiciary.

“There’s no question about it, judicial elections are good” for diversifying the bench, says Arthur Murphy, a political consultant and 1998 candidate for clerk of the Circuit Court and the son and brother of African-American attorneys who became judges by challenging the incumbents. (Murphy does note that minority appointments have been stepped up on recent years, adding, “Glendening has been busy.”) Hence the outcry that has kept judicial elections intact through periodic efforts to change the system, the most significant in recent years coming in 1996, when a legislative commission proposed abandoning them.

“If they talk about taking politics out of the judicial process,” Murphy says, “they can kiss my ass.”

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