By Donald C. Fry
How’s this for a system to select circuit court judges who will preside and rule on virtually every significant legal matter that will arise in your community, including civil disputes involving businesses, nonprofits, private individuals and government operations?
First, when a circuit court vacancy occurs, Maryland’s highest elected official – the governor – reviews lists of recommended candidates vetted by judicial nominating committees, made up of lawyers and non-lawyers, in the county where the vacancy exists. Then, the governor names a new judge from the list or rejects the list and starts the process over again. Almost always, a judge is selected from the list provided by the judicial nominating committee.
Then – after all of this due diligence worthy of a process for selecting someone with such broad authority and responsibilities – what happens shortly after the new judge takes the bench? An election is held where any lawyer in the county can run for a 15-year term for that judgeship without any vetting or review of qualifications, other than the fact that they are licensed to practice law and reside in that judicial circuit.
Sounds a little bizarre, doesn’t it? Welcome to the Maryland Constitution’s system for selecting circuit court judges. That’s why voters in Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County and Cecil County have compelling reasons to pay close attention to their primary election ballots Sept. 14.
In Anne Arundel County, primary election voters in both parties will find three names on their ballots for two circuit court judgeships. Two of the names will be the judges most recently appointed by the governor, and one name will be a challenger. In Baltimore County, four sitting judges and one challenger are on the ballot. In Cecil County, one sitting judge and two challengers are on the ballot.
All primary ballots will list only the names of the candidates, without party affiliation and without an indication that they currently are a sitting judge. It’s up to the voter in counties where there are challengers to know which candidates are incumbent judges who have been vetted by the governor and the local judicial nominating committee, and which have chosen to bypass that process or were not survivors of that process.
Primary ballots in Baltimore City and six other Maryland counties will also contain the names of circuit court judicial candidates, but there are no challengers in these jurisdictions and all of the names on these ballots are those of sitting judges.
Keep in mind that circuit court judges are at the center of our state’s process that, in addition to judging criminal cases, resolves civil issues that have far-reaching effects.
For example, zoning decisions often come before circuit courts, as did recent cases affecting the development of slots in the state. Future disputes over slots and the constitutionality of laws passed by the General Assembly will likely be decided by circuit court judges.
But voters are generally not as informed about judicial races as they are about other local and statewide races. Something as incidental as the alphabetical listing of names on a ballot can impact whether someone gets elected to a judgeship, regardless of judicial or legal record, policies or campaign platform.
The circuit court races are worth at least a quick Internet search before Election Day for information about candidates in your jurisdiction. The winners of these less-publicized races will, for the next 15 years, make far-reaching decisions that can affect criminal justice, the business climate, public policy and quality of life in our state.
Our system for selecting circuit court judges leaves much to be desired, but it’s the system we have to live with. In choosing judges, it’s important that voters know who they are voting for.