Because of the way the election is set up for Circuit Court judges in Maryland, Tuesday's primary in Anne Arundel County could decide which two of the three candidates win the general election and 15-year terms on the bench.
That has kept all three candidates campaigning during the hot summer in a contest overshadowed by the statewide governor's contest and higher-profile county races.
Ronald Jarashow, 60, of Annapolis and Laura Kiessling, 46, of Edgewater are seeking to retain the judgeships to which they were appointed in January by Gov. Martin O'Malley. Alison Asti, 56, of Pasadena hopes to unseat one of them.
Names of the three candidates will appear on both the Democratic and Republican ballots, but the ballots will not say which are the sitting judges or give party registration — the sitting judges are Democrats and Asti is a Republican. The names of the top two vote-getters on each party's ballot will appear on the general election ballot. The election could effectively be over with the primary if the same two people receive the most votes on each party's primary ballot.
After graduating from Catholic University of America's law school in 1975, Jarashow clerked for Richard Gilbert, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, an experience that led him to seek a judgeship more than three decades later. Jarashow's 34 years in private practice focused mostly on business, civil matters and trial work. He is married and has three children.
Kiessling, a 1989 Catholic law graduate, clerked for Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Bruce Williams before joining the state's attorney's office, where early cases during her 19 years there involved child support enforcement, and later ones included child sex offenses and murder trials. She also headed specialized teams, including one for hate crimes. When she left, she was one of the office's two deputy state's attorneys. She is married and has two children
Asti received her law degree from the University of Maryland in 1979. A commercial lawyer, she was a partner in a Baltimore firm. She was then with the Maryland Stadium Authority for 17 years, mostly as its counsel, and was its executive director for three years before being ousted. Since 2007, she's had a consulting business and recently joined the McCammon Group, which provides mediation. A widow, she has two children.
This campaign has focused mostly on trial work, politics and qualifications. The sitting judges discuss their decades of appearing in court, experience where they say Asti falls short. Asti is countering that she has significant legal knowledge.
Jarashow and Kiessling, who knew when appointed in January by O'Malley that they'd be running, formed a two-person slate, pulling in a little more than $100,000 in contributions.
Asti, mentioned as a potential running mate for Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and as a Republican candidate for state attorney general, filed her candidacy papers June 28, a few days after holding an Ehrlich fundraiser. In that time, she has raised about $36,000.
Supporters of the sitting judges said a trial judge should come to the bench with plenty of courtroom experience because the Circuit Court is a trial court. Understanding the rules of evidence, which cover all cases, is crucial to deciding evidentiary and procedural issues, as the outcome of cases can turn on those decisions, they contend. An erroneous ruling can be overturned on appeal, but that costs litigants thousands of dollars and can tie up courts and lives with retrials.
"You shouldn't have a judge whose first trial ever is in a robe," said Kiessling. "It's like having a doctor do open- heart surgery who has never done it before and only read about it in a book."
Asti said she has worked on business matters and overseen cases, having been a commercial lawyer and partner at Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander, and counsel to and executive director of the Stadium Authority. She declined to say whether she has personally tried cases, but said her background, which includes work on bringing the Ravens to Baltimore, also includes zoning, real estate, contracts and more.
"Everyone who goes to the bench has different backgrounds and experience," she said, adding that all new judges must learn aspects of the job.
"If you were a businessperson and you were going in front of a judge, would you want to go in front of a judge who understands business transactions or someone who has none of that knowledge?" Asti said.
She said the state constitution's requirements say nothing about courtroom experience.
"My practice was very broad. I did all sorts of civil cases," said Jarashow, who counseled businesses and represented businesses and people in Circuit Court trials and in appeals as a partner in Franch Jarashow and Smith in Annapolis.
He and Kiessling applied for judicial vacancies in 2009, which included submitting details of legal work and being vetted by lawyer groups and the Judicial Nomination Commission, Jarashow said. The commission gives the governor names of candidates it considers qualified. The governor must choose from the list, but can send it back for more names or readvertise the position.
Asti did not apply.
"Her credentials have never been examined by all the bar associations and the Judicial Nominating Commission," said Jarashow.
Asti said it would have been a waste of time for her to have applied, saying that with the commission controlled by gubernatorial appointees, and judicial appointments made by the governor, the process is political.
"I don't think the process is independent and nonpartisan," she said. The system provides for checks and balances, and an election, she said.
She said O'Malley's judicial appointees have been mostly Democrats — she switched from Democratic to Republican registration last year. She was named executive director of the Stadium Authority during the Ehrlich administration and fired during the O'Malley administration. The reasons for her ouster were in dispute, with her maintaining it had political roots, and the administration saying it did not.
Among Jarashow's and Kiessling's endorsements are the county's Fraternal Order of Police — the organization used to be Jarashow's client — some members of Ehrlich's former judicial nominating commission, many local trial attorneys and former Anne Arundel Bar Association presidents.
"I don't think anybody did trials better than [Jarashow] did. I don't think anybody wrote better than he did. I don't think anybody worked harder than he did. I don't think anybody knew the law better than him. I don't think anybody analyzed better than he did," said Robert R. Smith, a former law partner, and who also knows him as a youth sports coach, friend and neighbor.
Longtime Deputy State's Attorney William Roessler tried cases with Kiessling and said she is a stickler for doing things the way they are supposed to be done, a quality he said is important for a judge, since whether a verdict is overturned may hinge on that.
Asti, endorsed by the county's Republican Central Committee, said she is "working on endorsements." She is a former president of the Maryland State Bar Association, which endorses sitting judges and endorsed her opponents.
"She has excellent judgment and I think she would be an excellent judge," said Paul Bekman, a former MSBA president who worked with Asti on MSBA matters. "There are many judges who did not have the actual courtroom experience, they went on to become excellent judges," he said.