Last week, Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera of the Maryland Court of Appeals called for the abolition of contested elections for Circuit Court judgeships in the State. As I say goodbye to this column, and the fine people at the Montgomery County Sentinel, I join in Judge Barbera’s call for a constitutional amendment to change this system.
Article IV of the Constitution says that when a vacancy occurs on a Circuit Court bench, the Governor shall appoint “a person duly qualified to fill said office.” Gov. Hogan and numerous previous governors have appointed judicial nominating commissions to screen and nominate judicial candidates and agree to appoint only qualified candidates recommended by the commissions. The commission approval process requires a lengthy application, vetting by County and specialty Bar Associations, an interview and a background investigation which is a vigorous process.
Having made it through the commission process and been appointed from other qualified candidates, however, Circuit Court judges under the Constitution have to run in the next general election and appear on a ballot that does not identify them as sitting judges. In Montgomery County and other counties, it is not unusual for candidates who have not been approved by the commissions to stand for election, requiring the sitting judges to campaign in an effort to educate the voting public as to who are the judges who are already on the bench. This inevitably leads to criticism from uninformed persons about judges having to raise money to campaign, often from lawyers who are the only ones really knowledgeable about these judges and this process.
Bills have been introduced in the State House and Senate in the past to amend the constitution to abolish these elections. These have included a constitutional amendment that would allow the appointment of Circuit Court judges by the governor to 10-year terms, with the advice and consent of the State Senate, and then retention elections thereafter which would confirm the judge on the bench unless the electorate chooses not to retain the judge as is done for appellate judges. I join Judge Barbera in calling for the legislature to fix this system and remove our Circuit Court judges from the election process.
Its hard to believe it was more than 10 years ago when Dr. Leonard Kapiloff and Brian Karem came to me to ask if I would be interested in writing a column for the Sentinel. We discussed our goal of trying to help the public understand the Maryland court system and the ways it affects all of our lives as it strives to do justice, and I have tried my best to do that. I am very appreciative of the readers who have given me a few minutes of their time over the years to read the Court Report, and God Bless.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.