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Miller, most Senate Democrats back end to contested judicial elections

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller called Tuesday for an end to Maryland's practice of allowing challengers to run against appointed Circuit Court judges, saying a system that forces judges to raise money for political campaigns is "very unseemly."

Miller endorsed a constitutional amendment that would require newly appointed Circuit Court judges to run to keep their seats in so-called "retention" elections, in which voters would either say yes or no to their remaining on the bench. That is the system the state uses for appointments to its appellate courts.

The Circuit Courts are Maryland's principal trial courts for serious criminal and civil cases. The judges are now appointed by the governor but must run to stay on the bench for a 15-year term in the next possible election. Traditionally, new judges run in both party primaries. Usually they win the nominations of both parties, but in some cases a challenger wins one party primary to set up a general election contest.

Miller, backed by most Senate Democrats, wants to change that system. He said that in other states judicial contests have become big-money affairs that force judges to seek money from people who appear before them.

"The scales are tilted," said Miller, pointing to a case in West Virginia where a coal mine operator financed a successful challenge to a state Supreme Court judge.

"The decisions of Judges often have to be unpopular," Miller said. The amendment he backs is sponsored by Sen. Delores Kelley and is backed by most  Senate Democrats along with Minority Leader J. B. Jennings of Baltimore County.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who heads the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said another reason to change the system in that it disenfranchises independents and third-party voters, who don't cast ballots in the party primaries that usually decide who goes on the bench.

The idea faces some Republican opposition, however. Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican, pointed to a case last year where members of his party didn't like the choice made by then-Gov. Martin O'Malley. A Republican former state's attorney, Scott Rolle, challenged the Democratic-appointed judge and won. Hough said he approved of the result.

"I wonder if that's why they're doing this," Hough said.

Hough said retention elections are a poor substitute.

"Those retention elections, almost nobody is not retained," he said.

Miller's comments came at a news conference where he introduced a package of eight bills he labeled Senate priorities that he said had bipartisan support.

They addressed topics ranging from the state's heroin epidemic, the environment, criminal justice and drunk driving. One of the bills would extend state protections against workplace discrimination and harassment to unpaid interns.

   

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