This week the Republican and Democratic voters of Montgomery County voted to elect to full fifteen year terms seven sitting judges previously appointed by the Governor as Associate Judges of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. The judges were required to go through an, because under the Maryland Constitution they are required to stand for election in the first general election after their appointment to the bench.
The Circuit Court is the trial court of general jurisdiction in the County that hears the most serious criminal and civil cases, as well as family court matters. Since 1970, by executive order each Maryland Governor has agreed to select Circuit Court Judges who have been vetted and found qualified by Judicial Nominating Commissions. To be approved by the Commission, candidates must go through a grueling process to assure that only the most qualified candidates are eligible for appointment by the governor. Candidates must submit a detailed application, and then go through a series of interviews. In Montgomery County, this includes being interviewed by a Committee of the Bar Association of Montgomery County, which also submits candidate’s names for a vote among its members.
Judicial candidates may also be interviewed by specialty bar associations including the J. Franklin Bourne Bar Association, the Hispanic Bar, and the Women’s Bar Association. These Bar Associations submit recommendations to the Trial Court’s Nominating Commission, made up of lawyers and lay persons, who investigate the candidates and then interview them. The Commission submits a list of approved judicial nominees, from which the Governor appoints judges after conducting his own interview process.
Judges James A. Bonifant, Jeannie E. Cho, Jill R. Cummins, Debra L. Dwyer, Kevin G. Hessler, David W. Lease, and Margaret M. Schweitzer were all found to be highly qualified by the Montgomery County Commission, and were appointed by the governor. Under the system, a lawyer who is at least age 30 and pays a $50 filing fee can run as a candidate, even though not approved through the Commission process. As this happened in this election, and the ballot does not say “judge” in front of their names, the sitting judges were required to campaign and have volunteers at the polls so that the voters could understand who the sitting judges were.
While there have been efforts in the Legislature to amend the constitution to modify this system, sitting judges who are challenged will continue to have to raise money and campaign to educate the public before such elections. Congratulations to the sitting judges.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.