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Six candidates. Four seats. One week remains in primary race for Anne Arundel judge.

(Left to Right) Top: Former State's Attorney Wes Adams, Judge Pamela Alban, and attorney Annette DeCesaris. Bottom: Judge Elizabeth Morris, Judge Rob Thompson, and Judge Richard Trunnell. Alban, Morris, Thompson and Trunnell are running as a slate dubbed Keep Our Judges 2020.
(Left to Right) Top: Former State's Attorney Wes Adams, Judge Pamela Alban, and attorney Annette DeCesaris. Bottom: Judge Elizabeth Morris, Judge Rob Thompson, and Judge Richard Trunnell. Alban, Morris, Thompson and Trunnell are running as a slate dubbed Keep Our Judges 2020. (File Photos)

Four sitting judges running as a slate are facing primary challenges from a former state’s attorney and a private lawyer in a race for four seats on the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court bench, with final ballots due in just over a week.

The primary election has been both unprecedented because of the coronavirus pandemic, forcing the candidates to rethink how they can connect with voters, and unusual, because of pointed political intervention targeting one candidate.

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Fighting for the 15-year terms are sitting Circuit Judges Pamela Alban, Elizabeth Morris, Robert Thompson and Richard Trunnell, who are running together as a slate dubbed Keep Our Judges 2020. They face two challengers: the county’s former top prosecutor Wes Adams, who angered some when he entered the race, and attorney Annette DeCesaris, who ran unsuccessfully for judge in 2016.

Circuit judges preside over civil and criminal matters. They referee murder trials and preside over plea agreements. They call balls and strikes in lawsuits, divorce cases and custody conflicts. These judges also sign search warrants and subpoenas for police detectives.

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“That person’s going to hear thousands of cases involving the constituents and citizens of Anne Arundel County," said John Willis, professor of political science at the University of Baltimore.

The candidates via live video stream Thursday discussed their credentials and answered questions about diversity in the courtroom and balancing punishment and rehabilitation with their decisions from the bench. The digital town hall was hosted by the county chapters of the NAACP and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, among other groups.

Ballots are due by mail on June 2. Almost 16% of the county’s electorate had voted as of Thursday afternoon, according to the state’s board of elections.

All six names will appear on both Republican and Democratic ballots. The four candidates who garner the most votes on each ticket go on to the General Election, so it’s possible all six survive the primary. It’s also possible the same four names could finish atop both ballots, meaning they won’t have to face voters again in November.

The judges were appointed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan — Alban, Morris and Thompson in 2018, and Trunnell in December of 2019. They’ve touted the nomination process and asked voters to trust the system. Adams and DeCesaris have said that voters, not the governor, should decide who stays on the bench.

History suggests the cards are stacked against challengers in judicial races, but recently they’ve pulled off some upsets, Willis said. “While incumbent judges win well over 90% of the time, in recent years in the Baltimore metro area there have been winning challenges."

Circuit Judge Allison Asti ran as a challenger in 2010 against two sitting judges and ousted one, Judge Ron Jarashow. Challengers ran unsuccessfully in 2016 and 2018.

In Maryland, governors set up judicial nominating commissions in each jurisdiction to vet those who apply when vacancies open on the Circuit Court bench, Willis said. When a seat opens, the commission — made up of lawyers and citizens — evaluates the candidates and eventually sends names to the governor.

The commission weighs a number of factors, but Willis said it usually boils down to two: “Does the person have the judicial ability and judicial temperament."

“How you comport yourself? Do you have a reputation of honesty?" he said of the latter criteria.

The governor, who may do additional vetting, almost always chooses from the names and appoints judges to fill the vacancies, Willis said. After their appointment, the judges must stand for election to a 15-year term on the next statewide ballot. Qualified challengers, lawyers who must’ve lived in the county for at least five years, can file to unseat them.

Willis said the amount of money raised and how its spent are crucial in judicial elections, just like any race. They determine how well candidates communicate with voters.

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As of April 21, Keep Our Judges had about $194,000 in its campaign coffers, DeCesaris had about $7,000 and Adams had about $5,000. All of the candidates have spent most of their money on media or printing materials.

Adams has two factors working in his favor: name recognition and ballot position (his name appears first). On the campaign trail Adams has often referred to his term as state’s attorney and how he spent time over those four years in county public schools educating youths about the dangers of drugs. His predecessor, Anne Colt Leitess, took back the office by beating Adams in the 2018 election by more than 10,000 votes.

“It’s one thing for people to vote for you as a prosecutor; it’s another for people to vote for you as a judge,” Willis said. Some voters are savvy about the skills required for each position, he said, and incumbency has proven to be more important than name recognition or ballot position. "The sitting judge principal wins much more than it loses.”

DeCesaris has also touted her experience in the schools, as she was a teacher for six years before going into private practice for 22 years.

The incumbents have touted what they describe as a nonpartisan vetting process. They said it exposed their weaknesses and forced them to become better judges.

“There are six of us on the call; there are four of us who are presiding over cases currently," Morris said at the digital town hall. Before becoming a judge Morris was an assistant attorney general for Maryland.

Alban was a county prosecutor for 22 years, handling child abuse and sex crimes, before being appointed. Thompson was in private practice for 18 years, handling criminal, family law and civil matters. Trunnell was a prosecutor in Prince George’s County before a 26-year career in private practice, where he represented many children.

Adams’ entering the race at the last minute saw him draw the ire of Annapolis lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who questioned Adams integrity, saying the former prosecutor promised he wouldn’t run against Hogan-appointed judges. Bereano formed a political action committee, Citizens for Honest Judges - Anne Arundel County, to rally support against Adams. The slate earlier this month denounced signs targeting Adams.

Willis said it’s unusual for a political action committee to be conceived just to target one candidate.

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The incumbents boast the support of a vast array of elected officials from Anne Arundel County, including more recently Leitess and County Executive Steuart Pittman, both Democrats. In a rare move, the county’s police union endorsed the incumbents.

But some jumped to Adams’ defense after Bereano formed the committee against him. Among them is Del. Nic Kipke, R-Pasadena. The House Minority Leader endorsed the slate before Trunnell was appointed by Hogan and joined onto the slate. Kipke says Adams is his fourth choice for judge.

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